Understandable, but unacceptable nevertheless

On a journey through London yesterday, what started as an idle glance at the underground map resulted in more detailed research followed by a feeling of shame – how can this be acceptable in this modern era?

This is what first caught my eye…

This was the Bakerloo Line, one of eleven lines on the London Underground service.  I must have looked at the map hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the years.  But on this occasion, this tiny little notice caught my eye.  Yes, there is a special symbol to indicate which stations have step-free exit from the platform to street… interesting.  So they don’t all have that?  No… a total of two stations (Harrow & Wealdstone, and Willesden Junction) have step-free access.  There are 23 other stations on the line which don’t provide that – twenty three!  Admittedly, the line is more than a hundred years old, and more than half of the stations are actually underground, but how can wheelchair-bound passengers possibly cope with that?

A journey on the Central Line later in the day provided further opportunity for research.  Here the situation was rather better, with eight stations (White City, Shepherd’s Bush, Bank, Stratford, Woodford, Epping, Roding Valley, Hainault) out of a total 49 stations providing step-free access from platform to street.  Better, but still not good enough.

By contrast, the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), operated by Transport for London, is much newer and every station is designed with wheelchair access in mind.  Indeed, it was the first railway in the UK designated as “fully accessible”.

It is always easier to design these things into a project at the start, and the cost of adding lifts to an underground system more than a hundred years after it was originally built (in one of the most congested cities in the world), must be colossal.  Anyway, how can you possibly put a price on that?

How wonderful it must be for wheelchair users to see signs like this one, which I encountered in Tignes, France.  Brilliantly inclusive, admittedly without massive financial cost (presumably):

Thinking back to the time when my own children were babies in pushchairs, I recall how every journey on foot had to be carefully planned to avoid steps.  In time, every ramp, lift and escalator in every town was committed to memory and formed part of all days out.  In fairness, there were actually very few places which were totally inaccessible.  Sometimes, “thoughtless” shopkeepers put baby-change facilities upstairs, downstairs, or completely inaccessible from street level, and usually a moan to the shopkeeper would confirm that changes were planned “at some time in the future”.  But generally it wasn’t too bad.  According to my parents, all very different from how it had been when I had been a baby myself.  So gradually, these things are changing.  But it’s not a quick process.

For parents of babies in pushchairs, this is just a passing phase – it lasts only a few years before the pushchair can be banished forever, and a new phase starts.  At that point, determination to get local authorities to make improvements subsides, and memories fade and become rosier…  “it wasn’t easy, but it was manageable… and in any case, it was only for a few years”.  But for wheelchair users, the same cannot be said.  It must be heartening to know that improvements are coming despite the massive cost, but at the same time, immensely frustrating to know that these things can take an entire lifetime.  For wheelchair users, that is just completely unacceptable.  But isn’t it just the same for the rest of us – completely unacceptable?

What will be the stories from London 2012?

With London 2012 looming large on the horizon, I start to wonder who will emerge with a personal story which hits us all; circumstances, sacrifices and determination of breathtaking scale; tragedy, victory and joy.  The sort of thing which has a personal impact.

Thinking back to previous games, there are some moments and some people which are indelibly etched into my mind.  I’m absolutely not a sports fanatic, but I do enjoy the spectacle of the Olympics, and these moments somehow had an impact, not necessarily related to the sporting achievement.

The only research I did in preparing this post was to check names were correct and to confirm which Olympics the events related to – in other respects I relied on my memory. So these are not a generic set of “Olympic moments” – they are personal to me.  In no particular order:

Greg Louganis (Seoul, 1988).  In an early round of diving from the high board, he smacked his head onto the board and hit the water badly concussed.  In an astonishing display of courage he had the highest score for his next dive and went on to win gold in the finals.  Having watched replays of his accident many time since (and heck, that must have hurt), it is remarkable that he didn’t just walk away and withdraw from the competition.  That is not what true champions do.

Nadia Comaneci (Montreal, 1976).  This young Romanian gymnast created such a dazzling display of perfection that the scoreboard was unable to correctly display her score of 10.00 – the first time it had happened.  She became the star of the games, winning a perfect 10.00 six times during the games.  Such youth, such perfection, such dedication – it made an impact which is hard to recreate.

Steve Redgrave (Sydney, 2000).  Steve had already demonstrated what it takes to become an Olympian, by winning a gold medal in each of the preceding 4 Olympic Games (starting with Los Angeles in 1984).  After winning gold in Atlanta, he had famously said “Anybody who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me” but had gone on to compete for a place in Sydney nevertheless.  Having struggled with illness throughout the latter stages of his career, he showed what can be achieved with grit and determination, winning by the slimmest of margins and repeating the much-used quote “pain is temporary; glory is forever”.  I can recall exactly where I was, and how I felt throughout that race.  A remarkable achievement.

Muhammad Ali (Atlanta, 1996).  The boxing legend returned to the Olympics in 1996, not to compete this time, but to light the flame.  By this time he was living with Parkinson’s Syndrome.  The global television audience must have been huge, and nobody watching could possibly fail to be moved by the sight of this great man opening the games with such dignity and humility.  A champion; a true legend.  Unforgettable.

Looking back on these moments in time, I’m struck by the fact that it wasn’t so much the sporting endeavour which stays in the mind – it is the personal element.  It is being able to recreate the feeling of that moment, rather than being able to recall details of the events themselves.  London 2012 will surely create new records which will become statistics of the future, but the real stories will be those which we remember years later because of their personal nature.  It is sobering to note that those stories are now almost complete – writing of them probably started more than four years ago and they have been evolving gradually as the rest of us have been going about our day-to-day activities, oblivious of the sacrifices these athletes have been making.  It is only when the events of London 2012 unfold, when the full stories will be told.

And let’s make sure that those events are witnessed by young eyes, because by inspiring the next generation we give them a head start.  Ten or twenty years from now, Olympians all over the world will look back at their childhoods, and recall how it all started for them and how they felt inspired by the athletes of today.  What better gift can we give to our children today, than inspiration?

How to win friends and influence people

I’ve recently been reading How to win friends and influence people, by Dale Carnegie.

It’s a great read, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.  My instant reaction would be to wholeheartedly recommend it, but on reflection I’d hesitate to do that – or at least I’d want to issue some kind of “disclaimer” beforehand.  This seems like a strange way to be thinking about a book which became an instant best-seller on first publication, and has gone on to sell more than 12 million copies.  I deliberately didn’t read reviews of it beforehand (or since).  It is, after all, such a well-known book from a highly respected author that I considered it a “must read”.

In the Preface and Introduction the book’s origins are explained, and I can absolutely understand its appeal at the time.  But it is hard to see who is reading the book now.  I suspect that there are many people for whom winning friends and influencing people comes entirely naturally.  These readers will perhaps get a better understanding of what they are subconsciously doing and how they are achieving results.  They will probably find it interesting and informative, but it won’t be an essential read.

I can imagine, though, that there will be many people for whom this is all rather unnatural, and the reason they’re reading it is that they’re keen to learn how to change their behaviour.  This is, however, a self-selecting group – and probably rather a small group.  I suspect (again, no data to support this), that people who struggle to win friends and influence people will not be the sort of people who will want to change their behaviour.  This is a massive generalisation, but I do believe it takes a particular personality type to be sufficiently self-aware in the first place, and then motivated to make a change.

Carnegie even writes about this in the book.  He asserts that you can’t teach someone – you can only create the right environment and context for them to learn.  But they have to learn for themselves.

So the “disclaimer” I referred to earlier would be along these lines:

  • If you are already good at winning friends and influencing people, then don’t buy this book unless you want to understand why you’re good at it.
  • If you generally struggle with the subject and you understand that, you’re probably capable of changing your behaviour – so go ahead and read it.

But there will be plenty of people who struggle with the subject and don’t give it much thought.  For those people, they probably wouldn’t be considering reading it anyway.  So I continue to wonder… who are all the people who are reading it now?  Are they self-aware self-improvers, or has it been recommended to them?

Powerful words

“Father Forgets” is one of those little pieces which, dashed off in a moment of sincere feeling, strikes an echoing chord in so many readers as to become a perenial reprint favorite. Since its first appearance, “Father Forgets” has been reproduced, writes the author, W, Livingston Larned, “in hundreds of magazines and house organs, and in newspapers the country over. It has been reprinted almost as extensively in many foreign languages. I have given personal permission to thousands who wished to read it from school, church, and lecture platforms. It has been ‘on the air’ on countless occasions and programs. Oddly enough, college periodicals have used it, and high-school magazines. Sometimes a little piece seems mysteriously to ‘click.’ This one certainly did.”


by W. Livingston Larned

Listen, son: I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen into your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside. There are the things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face merely a dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor. At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”

Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before your boyfriends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive – and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father! Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at the interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped. You said nothing, but ran across in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.

Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped from my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding – this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years. And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night.

Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bed-side in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed! It is a feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy – a little boy!” I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.

Hmmm… Britain’s Got “Talent”

By complete coincidence the very day after my last post, on Hidden (collective) talent, I heard the results of the Britain’s Got Talent competition final, which was won by Ashleigh Butler and her dog Pudsey.  Between them, the duo netted prize money of half a million pounds, and it is easy to imagine even that vast sum being eventually be dwarfed by sponsorship deals over the coming year.

It is not completely clear whether the talent lies with Pudsey (for his unusual dancing abilities) or Miss Butler (for her ability to train the dog).  Either way, the contrast with the talent uncovered in James Whinnery could hardly be starker.  Certainly there are commercial realities involved, but even taking this into consideration, it makes me question what value we place on talent – and actually what we really mean by “talent”.

The Hidden Talent show didn’t appear to be a big budget production.  There was no prize money on the table.  There was no big pay day for the experts involved in developing the latent talent in James – they did it because they love to discover and develop talent. James has clearly gained a great deal personally; viewers of the programme will have derived enjoyment from it, and the experts will have too.

By contrast, Britain’s Got Talent was very much a big budget operation.  The prize money was very significant.  The “experts” (or judges) who selected the winners in each round weren’t doing it for altruistic reasons (rumoured figures vary wildly, but the general consensus seems to be that Simon Cowell earns £20 million for the series, with each of the other judges earning around £200,000).  The winner gained through the prize money, the future value of sponsorships etc.; and as with Hidden Talent, viewers of the programme will have derived enjoyment from it too.

As said, commercial realities cannot be ignored, but somehow this just seems plain wrong.  One could argue all day about the relative entertainment value of a dancing dog, compared to that of discovering latent linguistic talent.  But the point here is that the money seems to be going to the wrong people.  When a dancing dog wins a talent competition, it reminds us that we all enjoy being entertained.  But surely, when set alongside something more worthy, the comparison speaks volumes about what we value.

When there is so much valuable potential in the world, it seems somehow wrong that we can’t see big entertainment value in worthy causes, and that we should therefore give such prominence to trivial and shallow pursuits.

Hidden (collective) talent

The latest much-talked-about show on UK television is Hidden Talent (a Silver River production for Channel 4, sponsored by American Express).

In Episdode 3, 19-year old James Whinnery emerges from a battery of aptitude test undertaken by a large group of participants, appearing to have a particular talent for languages.  The show followed his journey from having absolutely no language qualifications to the point where he appeared on Jordanian television, fluent in Arabic 19 weeks later.  It was all the more fascinating since James was a down-to-earth, likeable character who hadn’t had the best start in life, and was an A-level drop-out who was living in a hostel for the homeless.

Whilst it was utterly compelling viewing, it was hardly surprising – after all, we know from past experience that many people have hidden talents.  And when those talents finally emerge from the “right people”, we are humbled and delighted.  What makes this series so interesting though, is the process by which the talents are uncovered.  The initial group of 900 participants took a series of aptitude tests, each of which had been carefully designed to identify specific talent potential.  James Whinnery performed particularly well in the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) which has been demonstrated to be an effective predictor of such talent.  Identifying and nurturing talent are, of course, two completely different steps, and James was lucky that not only was his surprising talent identified, but that there was sufficient motivation from him, and resource available from others, to nurture his incredible talent.

Can similar tests uncover hidden collective talent, and could they be applied in organisations to deliver exceptional results?  There are notable examples of what a group can do collectively – the rescue of Apollo 13, Mars Rovers, Concorde are obious examples – but are these the result of hidden collective talent emerging, or are they a potent combination of sheer hard work, huge resources and a large dose of luck?  Even though Gene Kranz never actually uttered the words “Failure is not an option“, and unpalatable though it was, it was surely the most likely of all the options.  The collective talent which saved the mission was not hidden, only emerging during the crisis – actually quite the opposite.  The eventual outcome was exactly what had become expected by the public who had become accustomed to witnessing great things from an extraordinary bunch of people.  Yes, for sure, there was delight and relief.  But surprise?  No, none – it wasn’t a surprise.

Personality type indicators such as MBTI and Belbin can be used to distinguish between different behaviours in individuals, and knowing this for each member of a team can sometimes be an indicator of how a team is likely to behave.  But this is very different from an aptitude test which detects hiddent talent within a team.

There are no doubt examples in organisations, where exceptional results have been delivered by teams to their great surprise.  Perhaps the results are only surprising because the initial challenge was so far outside the team’s normal remit that it was always inherently infeasible.  Such challenges are often delivered by inspiring leaders who can sense hidden collective talent.  Is there another mechanism for identifying hidden collective talent, or must we rely on those inspiring leaders?

By contrast, when leaders who are dictators, tyrants or bullies demand exceptional results, success or failure follow the deployment of massive brute force and huge resources – an effect which is altogether different.

James Whinnery demonstrated that once his talent had been identified, the nurturing of those talents could follow “standard procedures”.

If we could somehow identify hidden collective talent without recourse to the all-too-rare inspiring leaders, perhaps “standard procedures” for nurturing the team’s collective talent would deliver exceptional results?

When is a good time to stop listening?

“Never! It’s always good to listen”, is probably the reflex answer to this.  There are always people around who have experienced things for themselves, and who are happy to share the benefit of their experience.  In the work environment, it makes sense to listen to those who can tell you how to do something, or how not to.  At home, it makes sense for children to listen to parents or elders – after all, they’re almost certainly explaining something for the benefit of the child rather than themselves.

Parents will have noticed this with children.  A parent can tell a child something “a million times”, and the child will still stick his/ her hand in the fire, or touch the wet paint, or fall in the water.  At the time, it feels as though the child is being deliberately disobedient but I ought to be more charitable… it may have simply “decided” that this is a good time to learn by doing rather than by being told.

I’ve no idea how a child would determine when is a good time to be selectively disobedient and to learn by doing – it might just be random.  But either way, the child should be applauded for this approach since the resultant learning will invariably be more valuable.  However in the worst case examples, the natural reaction of a parent might be to scold a child, thereby reducing the likelihood of the child learning the next time, and perpetuating the problem.  Exactly the same logic applies to adults.

If we want to encourage real learning, we need to encourage failure – “we should be making more mistakes”.  But that inevitably means we should stop listening – sometimes.

E = Q + WE + S x C

This is the magical formula derived by Dr Paul Redmond in his book entitled “The Graduate Jobs Formula – How to land your dream career“.

It’s a great book, and essential reading for any graduate considering how to get their first “real” job.  Or anyone involved in the process of helping graduates into employment.

He makes the point that a graduate’s employability (E) is a combination of qualifications (Q), work experience (WE), strategies (S), and contacts (C).  This might not seem particularly novel but as with so many things, it seems easier to understand and rather more obvious when it is written down.  It’s an important reminder of what is important for young people to be thinking about.

All too often these days we see some incredibly lucky, clever, confident people apparently coming from obscurity and making it big – really big.  In the internet age, seemingly everything is possible, and many of the big names of today pursued their dreams with incredible results.  The likes of Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg are rarely out of the news and are the shining examples of what can be achieved these days.  When even graffiti artist David Choe is apparently set to earn $100-200 million for the work he did at Facebook headquarters, it further underlines the message that anything goes, and it’s okay to break all the rules.  “He’s just a graffiti artist – I can do that”.

The reality, of course, is different.  These guys are absolutely exceptional, representing the tiniest minority.  Not all graffiti artists are the same.  It’s great to dream – it would certainly be a dull world without dreams, and progress in prosperity would be painfully slow.  But at the same time, the vast majority of us need to be realistic.

By all means, dream.  But when not dreaming, remember what’s important – Qualifications, Experience, Strategies & Contacts.  If you get lucky along the way, brilliant – you can ditch all those lecture notes and certificates.