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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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.

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.