Mentoring

Mentoring haringIn an ideal world, everyone would be in a constant state of being a mentor and having a mentor (or being a mentee, if you prefer). In the past few years I have been part of formal and informal mentoring relationships with some people who have helped me find out all sorts of things about myself. I want everyone to experience it first-hand because I have found it to be transformative.

I sought my first mentor as I was trying to make sense of moving to a big city and changing career into my first real 9 to 5, office-based job from a short-lived career in youthwork. I went looking as I had a gut feeling that my line manager did not know how to manage my area (or me) properly because it was a new area for her. I was often left feeling that I didn’t know what to do, which was damaging my confidence.

I signed up for a local scheme which paired me up with the Business Development Manager of a charity near to the office where I worked. There were some areas of crossover in our work. Before our first meeting I felt nervous and excited. We arranged to meet at a mutually convenient coffee shop. My first impressions were not great. He seemed to be pretty grumpy, unimpressed by the lack of depth to my footballing knowledge and he was trying much less hard than I was to be liked. I was highly surprised when he said, “So, when would you like to meet next?”.

We arranged to meet up on a monthly basis after that and I can honestly say that the six months that followed saw some of the most personal and professional development I have ever experienced. What he taught me were some of the most valuable lessons that anyone can pick up at work.

  • No one can complete their job description in one year, so pick out some priorities

By presenting my line-manager with some ideas that I knew were part of the role but had never been fully completed, I was able to pick out some quick wins and make a good impression – convincing her that she was doing a great job of managing me.

  • Your job is completely your responsibility – autonomy is the greatest gift

Whilst my line-manager didn’t quite get my area of work, she was smart enough to recognise where good work was being done and just encouraged me to do more of it. I kept on relentlessly taking responsibility and giving away credit to allow myself to keep doing more of the work I loved.

  • Leadership requires you to have a vision, and to help everyone see how their work contributes towards the overall goal of your organisation

This wasn’t something he told me, more that he demonstrated through the way that he shared his experiences and introduced me to people he worked with and what they do. He was admired and respected, his work had won national awards yet he was completely himself and down to earth.

We continued to meet up for three years, during which time I went through two promotions at work. It coincided with a time of feeling that I was doing exactly the right job at the right time in the right way. Those feelings are hard to maintain forever. As my work dynamic changed and he got a new job, it felt like the right time to move on to new challenges.


As part of my new role, I wanted to be able to mentor someone else who was in a similar boat to me. I wanted to get better at coaching, as my new role had some managerial responsibilities, but I also just really wanted to give something back and pass on some of the helpful lessons that I had learned.

I signed up to a scheme which paired me up with a local university student who would be in his second year. As a mentor, I soon realised just how nervous this responsibility would feel. Did I really have any wisdom to share? I felt as much of an impostor as I’d ever felt. Fortunately, my mentee was incredibly easy-going and smart, which took some of the pressure off.

We arranged to meet in a different pub each time we met, allowing us to experience a wide range of drinking holes in North London. He had sought out a mentor as he had no real concept of what he wanted to do after graduation. He had a range of options available to him but could not really identify where to begin. I used some of the tools that other people had used with me in the past. Here are some of the things that seemed to work for us:

  • Spending almost the entirety of the first session getting to know one another

It helped us both understand what we stood to gain and build some rapport. The beer helped with this, but mainly this openness and understanding set a really good baseline for our relationship.

  • We set some boundaries around our expectations and set goals by which to measure the success of the mentoring relationship

While it sounds heavy, this just meant we knew how to behave courteously towards one another and would both have a sense of whether we had achieved something after the programme had ended.

  • A candid discussion around what things he was good at and enjoyed and would want to make a regular feature of working life

This was contrasted with all the things he hated and was bad at, along with some of the things he currently wasn’t great at but wanted to get better. We discussed what sort of roles and sectors would fit within his parameters.

He has done incredibly well during this time, finding work experience at the highest level imaginable in his ideal sector, has networked with some really valuable contacts and has a clear idea of what he wants to do after graduation.
I feel so proud to have been his mentor and am really excited to see where he ends up next. Whilst I hoped to be able to give something back, I had no idea that being a mentor could be so rewarding and encouraging. Everyone should do it!

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Male Tears

Cry me a river

Cry me a river

Saw a version of this mug today during a meeting with my line-manager and my first thought was “haha”, but it got me thinking enough to merit writing something.

I had a funny eye test the other week where I was trying to articulate to a male student optometrist (in a way that I hoped wouldn’t compromise my masculinity beyond all doubt) that it hurts me when I cry. Of course, you might think that when it hurts, that’s when you cry, but I mean that it causes me physical pain to cry. I don’t cry as much as I should, but when it ought to be happening, I get a stinging sensation in my eyes that makes me need to rub them and prod at them to try and get that sensation away. The medical explanation for it is that I have what they call ‘dry-eye’ syndrome – something that seems to be exacerbated by constantly staring at screens and not enough time staring wistfully into the distance (doctors’ orders!). They suggested that I get some eye drops, gave me a leaflet and continued with the eye test.

Of course, there is also a psychological thing around the difficulty of crying which is related to how men are socialised and taught to (not) deal with their painful emotions by bottling them up and stuffing them back down and generally not mentioning them or acknowledging their existence. As aware as I am of the negative consequences of this for men as a group and society as a whole, I’m not able to rationalise myself into painlessly shedding tears. I can’t help but feel that my body is causing me to react this way as a physical symptom representing the psychological challenge of allowing myself to cry. In the last year, I’ve had legitimate reason to cry in a way and place that would be socially acceptable but still didn’t feel able to let go. Simultaneously, I’ve found myself crying at happy / inconsequential / inspiring videos and music with the associated itchy, sore feelings. It’s frustrating because I believe a full-on sobfest might be quite cathartic.

An attractive lady struggles to remove a 'male tears' mug from her face. Superglued rims are no joke :'(

An attractive lady struggles to remove a ‘male tears’ mug from her face. Superglued rims are no joke 😥

The other thing that made me think is that when I went looking for an image of this mug, I realised that it’s a funny and legitimate response to the stupid Mens’ Rights movement and their stupid activists.

It must be pretty hard to sympathise with dickheads who are trying to legitimise your oppression. That said, not all men are. To make fun of all men’s inability to express themselves in a vulnerable way makes it harder for men to express themselves full stop. It alienates the ones who might be on your side and ultimately reinforces the status quo. Thus the patriarchy continues.

I think that perhaps the only way forward is for more full and frank communication. Unfortunately, it’s totally apparent that the people who need to do the most work on communicating their feelings are the worst at it and are actively discouraged from doing so by mainstream society.

Brené Brown talked about shame and vulnerability really powerfully in an episode of On Being back in January. The story that blew me away starts at 20:46, but the whole episode is worth listening to.

Ms. Brown: But the messages and expectations that fuel shame, the messages and expectations that bring us to our knees, are so organized by gender. You know, for women, it’s really about do it all, do it perfectly and make sure you make it look effortless.

Ms. Tippett: Right. It’s also about how we look, right? I mean, part of that is, and look great while you’re doing it too.

Ms. Brown: Oh, yeah, absolutely, no question. I mean, that’s the part that better look effortless. Appearance and body image is still the number one shame trigger for women. For men, there’s a really kind of singular, suffocating expectation and that is do not be perceived as weak. So for men, the perception of weakness is often very shaming and that one of the things that’s interesting is, I talk to men and, you know, what I heard over and over was some variation of, look, my wife, my girlfriend, whomever, they say be afraid, they tell me, you know, share your vulnerability with me, open up, but the truth is, they can’t stomach it.

The truth is that, when I’m very vulnerable, when I’m in fear, when I talk about it openly, it permanently changes the dynamics in our relationship. And when I started sharing this with women or whenever I started interviewing couples, women are like, oh, God, it’s true. I want you to be open and I want there to be intimacy, but I don’t want you to go there.

You know, and so, I’ve come to this belief that, if you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who, A, has done her work and, B, does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it, but just hear her and be with her and hold space for it, I’ll show you a guy who’s done his work and a man who doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.

He For She

Emma Watson is smart and articulate and right on. I read this article on my way home and found myself slightly dumbfounded by this excerpt from her .

“Our society in general devalues the she, I mean the qualities that are associated with the feminine that are found in all of us.”

“There’s this imbalance, this distortion that is just hindering our progress, it’s causing discord, violence and fear the world over.”

I couldn’t agree more – it’s great how she’s managed to communicate this with clarity and in a way that it would be hard for anyone to disagree with. I certainly felt a little bit more inspired after reading it and I’m going to watch the interview, even though I actively try to avoid anything to do with Facebook.

If you support these ideas then please sign up too!

http://www.heforshe.org/

Post Mortem

I have a grief ritual that gets me through each week, more or less. Every Thursday, after my working day is done, I head to one of the excellent, loosely craft beer, pubs in Islington, buy a lonely pint and read a chunk of an interminable tome called ‘Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies’. It was kindly bought for me by my Stepmum in the absence of knowing what else one could do in the aftermath of my sister’s death last year.

The book itself isn’t so difficult as the fact that it allows me space to open a painful wound and allow some of the difficult feelings out. It’s a weird thing to feel all teary as others around me are going for post-work drinks, hot dates or cool-guy time, but something about the atmosphere allows me to blend in and feel unnoticed in ways that other places don’t. I’d never pull the book out on public transport (too performative), and I never feel able to bring it out at home (where I read books for pleasure). The third place of the pub is a genuinely safe space to read some difficult material. When I’ve finished the book, I’ll find something else that fits the topic, or I might write about it.

I said around the time that I would have the rest of my life to mourn her death and that still feels true. Events have conspired to ensure that I have an upcoming reminder. The process has been very slow and after the postmortem report was released to us, we found out that we have to attend an Inquest – which will take place on Wednesday. The Inquest is presented to us as a straightforward 30 minute appointment in a small town courtroom, during which time we have the opportunity to raise any questions we might have for the Police who attended the scene, the doctors who conducted the autopsy and her regular GP. The reality feels like it will be a great deal more monumental.

I chose to read the post-mortem report a few weeks ago during one of my allotted griefslots. It was a really bad call. I wasn’t prepared for the unpleasant details, that her body could be referred to as ‘it’. I hated reading the police description of the scene, reducing 30 years of her life to circumstantial details around the house. I hated the incomplete medical history – for all the connections that could have been made. I hated that this last official document to her life will have been a piece of begrudged paperwork for some of the contributors. I hate that it is a series of pieces of evidence to the fact that she is dead. Whilst I read this in the pub, I felt sick and wrong in the head. It turned out that this was something I should have read at home.

I feel a sense of dread about the impending Inquest. I worry about the consequences for my parents of having to relive that day and I worry about how bureaucratic the process might feel.

Massive Bereavement

I’ve not written here in a terribly long time, which feels like such a waste of a really good URL. One of the major reasons is that I’ve been knocked sideways by the death of my younger sister last August – which was a waste of a really good person. Not empirically, undeniably good in that she was a perfect human being who made people happy everywhere she went, but good to me. She was my only sibling and died of a tragic accident at home at the age of 30.

To lose the one person who grew up with me, shared most of my childhood and life experience and saw first hand so much of my pain and success has been almost too much to bare. I think of all the love and understanding that has been lost both ways – that which she gave to me, effortlessly and that which I had for her. It’s deeply painful for a brother to take and I wonder whether being a man makes it harder. I was very involved in planning the funeral. I chose a reading and music that I knew she loved and read the eulogy. As I was involved in this process I felt detached and analytical. As I came to read the words that I prepared, I got through it with the wobbliest voice imaginable. I found it hard to be in the moment – I don’t know why it mattered to not appear weak in the face of extremely distressing circumstance, but I wanted to appear like I was coping.

Fans of embarrassing stock photography could do a lot worse than to image search 'bereavement' - a veritable treasure trove awaits

Fans of embarrassing stock photography could do a lot worse than to image search ‘bereavement’ – a veritable treasure trove awaits

I’m not sure that I can write about the grieving process in a meaningful way as there are so many elements to the loss that my family has experienced that it’s difficult to get close to explaining it to someone who is outside of that circle of experience. But I want to write about it as I’ve tried to deal with the pain and loss in a boringly typical male way thus far and it’s doing me no good. I can feel myself getting angry about things that do not matter in work and in my personal life, and I think it all comes back to the fact that my life is irrevocably changed, for the worse, and I will not get over it soon. Yet, rather than accepting that the situation is bad and understandably sad, I try to act as though nothing is bothering me and that I am dealing with it with stoicism and grit.

Part of the reason why I have not been able to talk about it openly is cultural, for sure. Our society struggles to cope with death at the best of times, and for colleagues, acquaintances and friends it’s a tricky thing to know how to broach. I think that they don’t want me to feel upset (or worse, appear upset on my visage), so they don’t raise it. This relegates it to taboo status. Unfortunately, all this not talking about my life-changing sad experience does nothing to help me assimilate it into my life experience thus far. There is going to be an inquest into her death next month, and that raises a lot more difficult feelings which it helps to express on here. I apologise if this appears off topic in comparison to the usual subject matter of this blog.

Film

This looks like it’s going to be a fantastic documentary. I hope it gets a UK release or there’s some way that we can all watch it on this side of the Atlantic.

It’s called “The Mask You Live In” and you can follow their updates on Twitter – @MaskYouLiveIn

Element

Finding Your Element

I wonder what Freud would have made of this?

Two different male colleagues recommended this book to me this week. Both warned me about the cover – mentioning that it’s not ideal to read on the tube and one suggesting that I wrap it in a cover of Bravo Two Zero.

I’ve only read the first chapter and I can tell that I’m really going to like it. Ken Robinson has the most watched TED talk of all time and is clearly an excellent bloke. The book aims to help people find that thing that means they’re spending the majority of their time doing something that they’re really good at and they really enjoy. It sounds so simple and yet loads of people are unhappy with their lot!

I think that it’s such a shame that this cover was the one they selected. It has been marketed towards women, with the knowledge that they buy self-help books and men don’t. I think it’s patronising towards women and it will put off a number of men from going anywhere near it.

Men do generally have an issue with asking for help and would find reading this of benefit, so it’s a pity that they’ve been written off as potential readers.