30 Years

They met in the Yemen. Of all places. My mum was on holiday and my dad was working out there. I’ve heard the tale enough times that it took on an Arabian Nights quality long ago. There were years of long distance love letters to follow, a year in Greece and a life to start again. Then, on March 22nd 1984, they got married in London’s Chelsea Town Hall. They celebrated over lunch with all the friends and family that could make it and drove back to their new home that night. 3 weeks later I arrived.

I’ve always thought of us as the three musketeers, the three of us taking on the world. But today is all about the two of them. I wish I was celebrating with them but instead I’ve raided my photo albums as a toast to my two favourite people…

With parents age 5





IMG_0250Folk music always makes me think of my dad, of the toddler version of myself watching him strum his guitar strings, and there’s a Simon and Garfunkel song playing in the background this morning, “Still crazy after all these years”. Perfect timing, as always.

Stuttering and the resilient sense of self

“Nobody worth your attention gives a damn if you stutter,” writes Cheryl Strayed, replying in her Rumpus Dear Sugar column to a woman who anonymously wrote to her as ‘Ashamed and Afraid’.

Resilience stutterWith her characteristic mix of tenderness and insight, Cheryl tells A & A, “It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing out the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter and taking in the fact that you have the power to redirect the blowtorch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.”

It is a beautiful piece, one that glues your eyes to the page and gives you whiplash from nodding your head so vigorously in agreement.

It is the type of writing that unifies us. Stuttering or not we all need to work on becoming the people we’re here to be. We all need to foster our own resilience, that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and and come back stronger than ever.

Strayed has that quality in spades and in my interviews for Out With It I saw resilience in the most successful stutterers I met. Stuttering might have battered their self-esteem for some part of their childhood, but they were not cowed by it. They described it as ‘toughening them up’, as ‘increasing their empathy’, as ‘instilling a fighting instinct.’ They were formed, rather than undone, by their struggle.

They were not unique, or superhuman, in their ability. We are all capable of astonishing resistance, coping, recovery and success. We just need to work out how we can withstand, rebound and transform the inevitable obstacles of our life into triumphs.

In The Resilience Factor, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte explain seven elements that anyone can cultivate to boost their own resilience:

1) Emotional regulation. The ability to respond appropriately in any given situation and control our emotions and behaviours so they are productive rather than knee-jerk reactions.

2) Impulse control. The necessity to notice our thoughts and sit with them for a moment, quietly, before we react.

3) Empathy. The capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, so we can keep ourselves from misreading situations.

4) Optimism. Not irrational optimism, rather the ability to believe that things can change for the better, to hope for the future, without denying the reality of our lives. The need to aspire and work towards positive outcomes without assuming that they are a forgone conclusions.

5) Causal analysis. The ability to accurately identify the causes of problems and think flexibility. The so-called father of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, focuses on explanatory styles as the the habitual way we explain the good and the bad things that happen to us. The need to look for specific, limited, short-term explanations for bad events rather than seeing them as permanent, personal and pervasive.

6) Self-efficacy. The sense that we are effective in the world, the belief that we can succeed at solving our problems.

7) Reaching out. The intention to create nurturing relationships and strong social support. We often learn by mimicry and a resilient, trusting and supportive community incubates reserves of optimism and resilience.

All of us will face failure at some point in our lives. Those who have been shielded from difficulty, who have spent their life coddled and protected, are not always the most successful.

Those who grow up battling against some form of adversity need more grit, more social intelligence and more self-control to create the kind of giant, full lives they aspire to. If they can develop the strength to derive knowledge and meaning from their setbacks, they are at a significant character advantage. As the researcher Ann Masten puts it, “resilient children have the benefit of ordinary magic.”

Do you have that ordinary magic? How often are you able to transform the setbacks of life into everyday triumphs?

Stuttering and the Power of Powerless Communication

Often stuttering is seen as a hindrance, perhaps even a disability. When most people are asked to name successful stutterers they tend to mention men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch. They marvel at the confidence and prestige of those stutterers who have somehow overcome their condition, whose voices no longer betray their speech difficulties.

But if we look a little closer, the truth is more complex.

In my research for Out With It I saw that many people who stutter end up being quite successful, gaining respect in everything from the boardroom to the basketball court. There were certainly those who were dissatisfied and unfulfilled, but those who were successful were not always those who had conquered their stuttering. Those people who had both excelled, and continued to stutter, seemed to have certain traits in common. I will explore traits of resilience in my next post but today I’m looking at the idea of embracing powerless communication, how it specifically relates to stutterers and how everyone can harness its power to generate trust and respect.

I first came across the concept in Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Give and Take. Grant is the youngest tenured professor at The Wharton School and a prolific academic in the area of workplace dynamics. His seminal book gives remarkable insights into what actually works in communication.

In his chapter on the power of powerless communication, Grant argues that, when it comes to collaboration, we are more inclined to hire, promote and value people who communicate powerlessly. This includes: talking tentatively; asking people questions (giving them the joy of talking), specifically asking them for advice; and being open about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, not just our strengths.

The first two are relatively easy to understand and implement, I find the latter the most intriguing. It is worth exploring through the lens of stuttering.

When writing Out With It I discovered how often people are drawn to stutterers, how likeable they seem to be. At first I balked against the discovery, worrying that the attraction was perhaps born of pity. However, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised it was the opposite – they were drawn to the stutterer’s courage and lack of artifice. In a world full of noise and nonsense, stutterers were seen as somehow trustworthy and genuine. Because their speech had nothing to do with their competence, it did not demean them in their audiences’ eyes. Rather it raised them up.

The idea that something that we often perceive as a weakness can actually be an important asset was a personal breakthrough, but Grant proves that the idea is applicable to anyone wishing to improve their communication.

Everyone has a weakness, whether it be their weight, their height, their looks, their clumsiness etc. Often our weaknesses have nothing to do with our competence, but we try to hide them to appear in control or knowledgeable or attractive. In actuality, when we speak in a way that reveals our shortcomings and expresses vulnerability, people can relate to us as a human beings. They are attracted to us.

What do you think? Would you ever share your weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the work place?

Whispered words of patience

Have you ever thought about the power of whispering, about all the urgency and intimacy that it contains?

Whispered patience

I had rarely thought about it before I attended a workshop called ‘Whispered Words’ at last month’s FRIENDS conference.

A group of stutterers, parents of children who stuttered and speech therapists were invited to sit in a large circle. Every other person in the circle was told to stand behind their seat. We were asked to think of one thing we wanted to improve in ourselves. Pens and paper were handed out and those standing were told to write, “I give you…” followed by the piece of themselves that they wanted to improve.

Those who were left seated were asked to close their eyes and those standing were directed to walk behind the circle of chairs, whispering in each seated person’s ear the words of the sentence they had written.

It started off tentatively, all shuffled feet and awkward scribbles.

Then, slowly, the self-conscious hush gave way to the muffled sound of whispers moving around the room.

The hesitant thrill of the first words in my ear surprised me, a man’s voice whispering, “I give you the courage to chase all your crazy dreams.”

Then a woman’s voice told me, “I give you permission to tell your story”.

At first they were all different, an anonymous litany of private fears and dreams. Gradually repetition crept in and, by the time I had opened my eyes, there was nothing I had been given more often than patience.

Patience seemed to ring in my ear as if the whispered word had somehow come from my own brain. It felt as if I was carrying their secret, as if I had a responsibility, and an ability, to be patient.

So what does it mean to be patient?

In the quiet of the room I tried to untangle its meaning and complexities. To find peace in the moments that seem to automatically bring frustration? To show compassion and empathy for others, and for ourselves? To stop rushing towards some unknown future, and instead appreciate the gradual unfurling of things?

Impatience is part of the habitual reaction I have towards my speech. It is not a part of myself I’m particularly enamored with. I find it far easier to be patient with others, to give them the time I believe we all deserve. It takes far more effort to have patience with the moments of my stuttered speech, to forgive myself for all the ways I’m not perfect and accept that the process of change is not well-suited to my desire for instant gratification.

In my mind patience does not mean apathy. It does not mean taking a step back from the world and waiting for our rewards. It is a far more difficult and active state. It widens our view of a situation, it asks us to question our assumptions and dispute the frustration that rarely serves us well. Patience gives us the capacity to wait until the right moment to act.

It is a word to whisper to ourselves, a powerful amulet against our irrational fallacies.

This article can also be found on my Psychology Today column.

Experimenting with Patience

Patience is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a tendency to rush myself, and others.

Learning patience

I suspect that living in New York feeds my impatience. Rushing is a way of life here. Our food arrives minutes after we’ve ordered it, the subway shoots us from one end of the island to the other, the streets are clogged with city dwellers sliding, eyes-rolling between groups of dawdling tourists on the sidewalks.

It is a city where time is people’s greatest resource. Services have evolved to outsource anything that might ‘waste’ your time. Task Rabbit will run your errands or clean your flat, a virtual assistant will call your electricity company so you don’t have to wait on hold, Fresh Direct will bring groceries to your 5 floor walk-up so you don’t have to spend precious minutes in the line at Trader Joes.

It is all terribly efficient. But it is good for us? Is it feeding our happiness?

I spent the past two weeks travelling in Costa Rica. It took close to 3 hours to rent a car, every meal we ordered took at lease 30 minutes to make it to our table, we had to wait for an hour in the bank to speak to someone after a machine swallowed our debit card, we got stuck behind suspiciously-leaning-cattle-bearing-trucks that barely broke 40 MPH on the highways while spewing thick black exhaust.

And yet the World Database of Happiness lists Costa Rica as the happiest of 148 nations

Quite possibly it has a lot to do with the natural beauty of the country, or the fact that they dissolved their standing army in favour of pumping money into education, but it might also have something to do with living in a country where things happen in Tico-time.

Tico time happiness

Moving more slowly, waiting more often, forces us to look around. It may infuriate us but it also has the potential to let us see things, hear things and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Maybe all our rushing around is making us blind to the world outside of our blinkered efficiency.

So back in the city of hooking cars, heavy-footed cab drivers and appointment laden weeks, I’m seeing how it feels to talk a little slower, to walk at a different pace and spend a little more time watching the chaos around me.

The importance spontaneity

I’m obsessed with the word ‘spontaneous’.

In a recent article I wrote, the word made its way into at least three sentences. I was spontaneous in my speaking, in my traveling, even in my relationship. I was saying it so often that it was starting to lose its meaning. It was starting to sound foreign and meaningless, like a word you say over, and over, and over again.

What did the word really mean to me? Why did I feel the need to inject it so forcefully into my writing?

In the words of Germaine Greer, “The essence of pleasure is spontaneity”.

spontaneityGreer’s words sum up how I always saw spontaneity. The ability to be natural and passionate, the joy of living life impulsively, without too many constraints. The adventure of ending up somewhere unexpected and discovering something new.

Spontaneity was something I always aspired to, something I always made a place for in my life. I impulsively left my job to write a book, set off on a quest with barely a plan, said yes to anything and everything that sounding intriguing.

But I aspired to other things too, more concrete things, like a house and a family and enough money not to worry too much. We started a business, I wrote a book and I knew the importance, and the comfort, of having a routine.

Gradually, the rituals and routines that we had created started to seem like they were taking over. Every moment in our day was accounted for, every evening planned and every weekend full. We were busy and productive and trapped.

I realized the spontaneity was not just a frivolous thing that made me feel free and unencumbered. It was necessary. It was in the moments that I didn’t have anything planned that my mind could wander and make connections. It also allowed me to see things and experience things that were unexpected, things that challenged me and changed my perceptions.

Without spontaneity I was safe, with it I was living.

Location, Location, Location: Why we moved to New York

Frank Bures recently wrote a fantastic article in Thirty Two magazine on the fall of the Creative Class. The article is a well-written exploration of the holes in Richard Florida’s argument that young, innovative people move to places that are open and hip and tolerant, and that they, in turn, generate economic innovation. It opens with Frank’s decision to move to Madison, Wisconsin, because it was liberal and open-minded, a college town with bike paths and coffee shops. It ends with Frank’s disillusion with both Madison and Florida, and his decision to move to Minneapolis. As he puts it, “This time, we moved as wiser, more reality-based people. We researched it carefully. We picked the place we wanted to live not because of any trendy trope, or because it was high on any particular list, but because of the cheap housing, jobs, family and friends, as well as the arts, the biking, the public transit and quality of life.”

The whole article made me think about why Jeremy and I chose to live in New York. Why we packed up our car and drove from Chicago to New York with no apartment and no jobs lined up.

I know the reasons that we gave ourselves:

  • It was nearer my family (and at least a couple hours closer to England)
  • It was a place where things ‘happened’, the heart of the publishing industry and a breeding-ground for startups.
  • It was somewhere that we wanted to experience, a city that we expected to be gritty and adventurous and ideal for our late 20s.

We ended up in our flat in Brooklyn because we fell in love with the mismatched original floorboards, the tree-lined streets, the sense of community and the plethora of amazing restaurants. I’m glad we did. Our place feels like home, it feels like somewhere we have put down roots.

Brooklyn New York

And yet I wonder how much longer we will stay.

We both miss the access to the outdoors, we miss peacefulness and we lament our once existent bank balance. We are perpetually exhausted by the city.

I wonder if we will move to the countryside some day, or a different city, or a different country even. I expect that we will and yet, when I think of leaving, I dwell on all that I would lose in leaving New York. More than anything it is the people, the friends we have made and the family we have here, that I would miss. I balk against giving them up.

Ultimately, I do not think that any place, any city, is perfect. Everywhere is flawed in some ways and beautiful in others. As Bures puts it, “It may be wiser to try to create the place you want to live, rather than to keep trying to find it.”

Startup Life: The perils of working from home

I love running our startup from home. I was never a big fan of office life. I went mute by the water cooler, longed to be outside in rainy London and went brain dead every morning that I had to plan what to wear. There was something unnatural to me about the sunny open plan office that I last worked in. I dreamed of a cramped home office.

writing at home

Today my dream has come true. I work from home, along with Jeremy and the rest of our team. We have lunch together every day and banter conversations down the halls of our little flat. I couldn’t ask for anything better. And yet it does have its perils.

It is hard to look professional with towels hanging from the clothing line outside the kitchen window.

The temptation to work in trackie bums is, at times, too great to resist.

I have forgotten how to walk in high heals.

Business calls compete with the impressive shuddering of our washing machine.

Midnight has become a normal time to stop working.

Without office intrigue to keep me busy, work chat has kidnapped my banter.

Still, I’m not complaining. Working from home suits me. I’m just confused, I’m not sure where my home begins and my office ends. I’ve escaped the 9 to 5 and entered the 9 to midnight. Someday soon we may have to move into a ‘real’ office but I’m reluctant. My home may be covered in brown box ‘installations’ but my commute is pretty impressive and every day feels a little bit like a stolen holiday. I’m not too keen to give it up.