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.

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.

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.

Southbank

Southbank Centre - Being a Man Festival

Southbank Centre – Being a Man Festival

The Southbank Centre held their inaugural Being a Man Festival over the last weekend of January. I went to a couple of things; less than I would have liked but enough to feel like I’m allowed a comment. I know that it was fairly controversial to have one in the first place, but a lot of the stuff I read on Twitter bore little or no relation to any of the stuff I was at. If you’re talking about an arts festival, your opinion is basically invalid if you weren’t there. The experiences tend to be so subjective that it’s rarely valid if you are there, but here’s mine nonetheless.

It was good. It made me feel encouraged to see that there were other men (and lots of women) who felt that it is important to have a discussion about what’s going on with men, some of the changes that we’re experiencing and some things that might make it better for everyone.

Grayson Perry is an astounding communicator, thinker and role model. The main thing (of many) I took from his talk on the Friday night was about how masculinity (an abstract concept) becomes reduced very quickly to symbols – beards, tribal tattoos, fancy cars. It’s in this reductive approach that we lose a lot of the nuance that makes men and women individuals, thus interesting. He closed by offering men a bill of rights for us to sit down to – including the right to be vulnerable and the right to be wrong. Both laudable things to relax towards.

I didn’t get to anything on the Saturday and day tickets were sold out on Sunday. I got a ticket for the evening event, a panel discussion / singing thing between Billy Bragg, Phill Jupitus, Tom Robinson and Akala. Before this was a performance from the Chaps Choir who appeared on my radar a week or so before. I was surprised by how stirring it was. They sang together, proud and strong and it was edifying to hear a cover of Book of Love by Magnetic Fields alongside more muscular songs.

The panel discussion itself was a bit hit and miss. It was heartfelt in places, never sinking into melancholy, funny without being hilarious. The discussion had to cover such a wide variety of experience from the panel members that it felt a bit incoherent at times. The music was fine but not really my scene. All in all, it was a great festival event. I think that festivals are meant to be hit and miss and you mainly get the benefit from being there.

The main thing I missed out on were the discussions with fellow blokes – they tend to be the most interesting bits. I’ll definitely be getting a full weekend ticket for next year. Jude Kelly is to be congratulated on her idea and execution, in the face of much criticism. 

#noreally

#noreally

Tough

I completed the Yorkshire Tough Mudder 2013 on Saturday with my girlfriend and a friend I’ve known since school. We have spent months in training, trying to build our cardio and strength up to the point that we could complete the challenge, giving up alcohol and eating pizza in the process.

Tough Mudder is marketed in an embarrassing, macho way. There’s plenty of reasons why I could have quite easily not taken part but I’m really glad I did.

I spend a great deal of time in my life seeking comfort, avoiding unnecessary suffering and pain. But, there’s something gloriously primitive about running through fields and forest and mud, jumping and crawling, leaping into freezing cold water and progressing towards a goal. It’s so rare to have to face our elemental fears – injury or death through falling, being in confined space, freezing,  drowning, electric shocks – that when you spend an afternoon having no choice but to face them (or feel ashamed), it’s liberating and life-affirming.

The biggest challenge in the afternoon for me was ‘Arctic Enema’ – jumping into a skip filled with muddy water and ice cubes, and having to go underneath a board in the middle. As soon as I landed in the water, the shock of the temperature made me gasp and I ended up swallowing some horrible water and fighting for breath. But we made it out the other side, alive and relatively fine once we started running again. For my friend, the biggest fear was ‘Walk the Plank’ for my girlfriend it was the ‘Berlin Walls’.

The discipline of regular training is something quite new to me as well and I think that it’s really important. Last year, I had knee surgery on a torn meniscus and it was the limitations this created for me last year which convinced me I should do Tough Mudder. If I hadn’t had that injury I would never have gotten this fit and I wouldn’t have experienced Tough Mudder this weekend. I lost just over a stone through eating the right things and working hard and I also started to really enjoy using my body to get stronger and more fit. I wish I had considered getting fitter sooner.

The main thing that I got out of Tough Mudder was the feeling of camaraderie – we all shared a goal, each of us faced a fear that we might not have managed alone and together we helped each other through. It was a genuinely joyous moment as we crossed the finish line together, but throughout the race we had big grins on our faces. I think it was the joy of knowing we’re alive.

Toughness is seen as a positive male characteristic. As a not-Alpha male, it’s easy to feel intimidated by all the massive people around you and the marketing and all the extra stuff. It’s not really about being tough, or getting muddy or drinking Strongbow.

Do Tough Mudder, or a similar event, but do it for the shared experience, to feel alive and to face your fears.

First

Having struggled for some time with feelings of inadequacy around my ability to be a man, I find myself strangely heartened to repeatedly hear that masculinity is in crisis. It’s an idea that the British press has grabbed hold of and continues to run with. Unfortunately, the consequences of this crisis are pretty terrible for men and the people who know men.
In typical fashion, we don’t tend to talk about our experience of being men and so I have started this blog in order to try to articulate some of my experiences. I have lots of opinions and I’d like to hear from other men so that we can understand each other, understand how to explain ourselves to others and ultimately attempt to find some sort of way out of aforementioned crisis.
Struggles I have faced:

  • Anger – anger is a human emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. It can be harnessed to positive effect but it can also be extremely devastating. These feelings can lead to domestic violence, family annihilation and suicide. Not all men will go to those extremes but my sudden losses of temper frighten me.
  • Money – the old model of masculinity has men as breadwinners, providing for their families. This is an ancient idea, harking back to the image of man as strong ‘hunter-gatherer’. My generation has struggled with student and consumer debt for some time and in certain fields, thanks to positive changes in the workplace, we can no longer expect to have as great a slice of the collective wealth, power and status. I find it hard being caught in-between the expectation to be a provider and the understanding that I should not expect to be one.
  • Love – sexual politics is complicated and we receive mixed messages. Men need to be romantic, but they also need to have a bastard element (if they want to be attractive). We need to be ourselves but we need to be better. We need to be amazing at DIY and incredible lovers. We need to be there for our kids and do more housework, but we also feel the urge to provide for them.
  • Communication – if there’s one thing that ties together all of these issues, for me it’s about communication. I frequently find it hard to tell people exactly what and how I feel, who I am and who I want to become. I think that an inability to communicate clearly leads to many of the struggles and issues that men face.
  • Appearance – men aren’t supposed to care about their appearance but they’re also supposed to look like Rambo / Arnie / Ryans Gosling and Reynolds. It’s confusing. I’ve found myself worrying about my appearance and odour from time to time. I’ve recently lost weight and found myself preparing for a mud race. More about this next week.
  • Faith – I grew up in the Church of England and have gone through Evangelical and Liberal phases, settling on an uncomfortable agnosticism that recognises many of the positive aspects of organised religion. I studied Religious and Theological studies at University, so it’s likely that some of these themes will come out in this blog.
  • Friendship – I have a good number of friendships with other guys, but few of them are deep and involved. This I’d attribute to difficulties around communication on the whole, but perhaps there’s more to it than that. I’d like to explore the nature of male friendship.
  • Role Models – who are the people that we should look up to in these times? Let’s try and find some role models that aren’t Chuck Norris cartoon archetypes and celebrate men who are doing it right.

It suffices to say that being a man in the early 21st century is confusing. I’m going to do my best to share some of my experiences, I hope that you will join in too.