The new normal

Here in Melbourne, Spring has suddenly sprung. Truly it has – don’t bother me with your petty calendar-based technicalities, I know Spring when I bask in it.

Outside the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the temperature has reached that balmy level where, if it were summer, we’d all be muttering about brass monkeys and their frozen … er… seed cases (this is a family friendly website, ok?). Truly, it’s 17 degrees out there and we’re breaking out the t-shirts, shorts, and thongs, making plans to head for the beach. Weather like this in January would have us reaching for our coats and beanies. But coming as it does after a grey, cold winter, 17 degrees is pure, unadulterated bliss.

We are a remarkably adaptable species. We adjust quite quickly to new circumstances, and sometimes we forget that anything has even changed. What’s normal today is entirely dependent on what happened yesterday. Was it 12 degrees and rainy? Then 17 degrees is fine. But sometimes it pays to examine the new normal, and wonder if we have actually progressed. So here is a random list of normalities that could use some adjusting.

1. Politicians lie. They do. It’s a fact. We’re so used to it that it’s not even newsworthy anymore. It’s just a thing we know they do. I don’t know what the point of elections is anymore. We vote for some party on the basis of promises that we know they will break. We accept the lies, the inhumanity, and the gross inequity of their actions. Perfectly intelligent people swallow all kinds of lies like “saving lives by stopping the boats” and “budget emergencies”, even when evidence has shown them to be complete rubbish. And we are neither surprised nor horrified when they turn out to be corrupt. It’s just the way they are.

But we don’t have to accept it. We don’t have to vote for politicians. We can vote for independents, and minor parties. The major parties would have you believe that it leads to chaos, but Julia Gillard steered a hung parliament and a very fragile senate through some of the most significant progress Australia has seen in years. We got a National Disability Insurance Scheme, we got a price on carbon – a step that much of the world is now implementing, while watching in horror as we dismantle ours. The worst thing that can happen to a government is to have complete control. Good government is a process of negotiation, balance, and compromise.The more independents and minor parties get the vote, the more politicians will take note and start to listen to us. Your local member broke a promise? Sack ’em. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

2. We need new stuff. It’s hard rubbish time in my area, and the number of large, fully functional televisions that have been thrown out because their owners have shiny new flat screen tvs is ASTOUNDING. All because we need new stuff. We picked up a coffee table that needs a couple of nails and a polish to be as good as new. It’s a sturdy, high quality table. It’s lovely. But it was chucked on the scrap heap, because we need new stuff. More with the shiny things. Newsflash: We don’t need new stuff. Things can be repaired. Things can be polished. I can imagine a whole new class of profession in the future: people who fix stuff. Freaky, eh?

3. There’s rubbish everywhere. Yes, there is. But like politicians, we don’t have to accept that. We can take responsibility for our own rubbish. We can create less rubbish (don’t get me started on coffee pods), and dispose of what we do create carefully. We can pick up a little of everyone else’s rubbish every now and then. How many times have you walked into a school, a shopping centre, or a carpark and thought “how disgusting, people are such pigs!” and yet not done anything about it? Be the change you want to see in the world.

4. We need cars. We don’t, you know. We have feet. We have bicycles. We have public transport. Sure, there are arguments against many of those things, but you have more power in your body than you give it credit for. You can walk further than you think you can. You can ride further than you think you can. And the beautiful part is that the more you do it, the more you can do it. Got kids to transport? Get yourself a cargo bike. Cheaper than a second car, and you’ll save yourself the cost of a gym membership too. I’m not saying cars aren’t useful, but does your family really need two?

5. Productive=Busy. We are greatly invested in being busy these days. Wasted time is anathema. Got to be up and doing! But if there is one single thing I have learnt from being ill for a long time, it is that sometimes the most productive thing we can do is nothing at all. Mindfulness, stillness, peace and quiet – whatever you call it, we all need it, and we don’t value it nearly enough. I recharge my phone with ferocious obsessiveness, rarely letting it get flat. But I let myself get flat all the time. When was the last time you prioritized recharging yourself?

6. We mustn’t interfere. I have friends who live on a beautiful beach in Tasmania, where signs say dogs aren’t allowed, as it is a significant nesting area for a number of threatened species. Nonetheless, dog owners take their dogs there regularly, even off the lead. Rather than tut-tutting under their breath, my friends call them on it. Gently. Tactfully. But ever so firmly. They’re clever about it. They give people a chance to save face with comments like “Did you realize that dogs aren’t allowed on this beach?” which gives the owners the chance to say “Oooh, no, thanks for letting me know” and scuttle away with their tails between their legs (sorry). They still see dogs on that beach, but there are less of them, and they rarely see anyone they’ve spoken to coming back. This is how progress is made.

The mum next door screams at her kids a lot? Strike up a conversation. Maybe she really needs someone to talk to. There’s a dad in the supermarket with his toddler on the floor, screaming up a storm? Reach out to him. “Hah, I’ve had days I’d have liked to do that!” or “we’ve all been there, eh?” to let him know he’s not alone. When I was away from work for an extended period, I got lots of messages, emails, texts and phone calls, just checking that I was ok. I even got a few visits.

The world needs more reaching out, not less. So often we have no idea what’s going on, even next door to us.

What’s normal to you, and how much of it needs to change?

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The total perspective vortex

I’ve been on sick leave for 3 weeks now, and today my GP urged me to take the rest of this week off as well. What started as a virus ended up with heart complications, which although they are benign, are exhausting. So I have been napping the days away, and when I haven’t been napping, I’ve had plenty of time to think.

For me, too much time to think can often be dangerous, as I have a tendency to take myself too seriously and spiral in on my own thoughts in a vortex of despair. This time, though, I haven’t had the energy to despair, and I’m starting to think that perhaps I don’t take enough time to think in the day to day marathon that I call my life.

I tend to push myself hard, stress over everything, and believe that if I stop pushing everything will fall apart. Well here’s the thing: I stopped. I was forced to. And here’s the tally:

People dying as a result: 0

Civilizations collapsed: 0

Worlds ended: 0

Fires started: 0

You get the gist, I’m sure. What happened was that a good friend took over my beloved year 11 class, and by the sound of it they’ve been having a great time. My year 10s are safe in the hands of my team teaching partner. Sure, people have noticed I’m not around, but there has been a marked lack of screaming and catastrophe.

I have so many things I was going to do in that time. I have so many things I want to do when I get back. So much to build, so much to fix. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the world does not revolve around me. My school does not revolve around me. Even my classes don’t revolve around me. If I quit tomorrow, I’m not sure there would even be a ripple before everyone adapted and moved on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting all maudlin and “woe is me” about that. I know I have a lot to contribute. But if I don’t contribute it all in one day, the world will continue in its daily course undisturbed. I love my job, but maybe I need to take a step back from it every now and then, take a deep breath and look around me. Maybe I need to learn how to love it without being consumed by it.

Douglas Adams wrote that “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” But maybe sometimes we need to feel a little bit small, in order to remind ourselves that we are not wholly responsible for the universe. Sometimes the universe can get along just fine without us.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Much of the Australian Government’s current behaviour seems to be predicated on danger. Apparently, aside from the “only visible out of the corner of your eye” budget emergency, we also have a security emergency, a border protection emergency, and a desperate need to sacrifice privacy and freedom in order to be safe from the ever increasing terrorism emergency. Indeed, one news article I read today suggested we Australians live in “increasingly dangerous times”.

Certainly we feel increasingly unsafe. The news is full of reasons why we should be terrified of, well, just about everything. Of strangers (especially around our children). Of hijabs and head scarves. Of hoodies. Of refugees. Of politicians (actually that one seems pretty logical).

We are told that we need to sacrifice the presumption of innocence, together with our privacy, and accept laws creating a new level of surveillance (maybe, depending on who’s talking today), and requiring people traveling to “suspect” places to prove that they were not there with nefarious intent. We have to accept this, or be on the side of the terrorists. Obviously. Because we are in so much danger.

And yet… Are we actually at risk? Are we more likely to die? The Bureau of Statistics says that in 2003 132,292 people died in Australia, whereas in 2012 the number was 147,098. So we are more at risk, no? Well… no. If you factor in population in those years, in 2003 the ratio was 0.0067. In 2012, it was 0.0064. So you were actually less likely to die in Australia in 2012 than you were in 2003. The overall death rate has dropped.

If you consider the facts (a proposition neither politicians nor the media are keen on, it seems), we are growing older, safer, and more prosperous all the time. We are increasingly blind to how good we’ve got it. We have an unprecedented degree of financial security. We can afford to extend our good fortune to refugees. We can afford to protect our privacy, our freedom, and the presumption of innocence. We can also afford universal healthcare and high quality education, whatever Tony’s cronies might say.

What we can’t afford to do is reject science, facts, and the reality we live in, in exchange for a politically constructed illusion that is convenient for people trying to gain power, but catastrophic for the rest of us.

There is increasing danger in these times, but it is neither terrorism nor economics. The real danger is ignorance and credulity. It lies in blind acceptance of political spin, and a failure to question the statements and the emotive slogans that are stuffed down our throats every day.

Whatever your political views, whatever your beliefs, the one thing we must all do is to keep asking questions. It may be too late to keep the bastards honest, but it’s not too late to call them on their lies.

What makes a leader?

I was excited when a friend of mine went for promotion recently. He was diffident about it, but I watched him light up when he talked about things he wanted to achieve, and the possibilities he saw in his organization, and I knew he’d be amazing. I’ve worked with him before in leadership positions, and I’ve seen him interact with people on a daily basis. He has that rare gift of giving you his whole attention and making you feel important. Everyone knows him, everyone likes and respects him. And yet I know that’s a good start, but it’s not enough to make someone a great leader. So what is it that makes me absolutely certain he’ll be great?

Not long ago I was lucky enough to hear Bob Brown speak, and you can’t listen to Bob for so much as 60 seconds without being struck by his passion, his optimism, and his drive. The central tenet of his talk was that optimism is a driving force. If you let pessimism knock you out, there is no way forward. It takes optimism to drive change. You have to believe that change is possible, and that you can make it happen.

Bob is an intriguing character. It’s enthralling to hear him talk, but he is not one of the world’s great orators. His speeches seem unplanned. He digresses from his digressions recursively, until you are so many levels deep you can’t remember where it all began (yet you are fascinated all the way through). He is not king of the media friendly three word slogan (“Axe the tax!” “Stop the boats!” “Harass the Homeless!” “Revile the Refugees!” “Persecute the poor!”), or master of the newsworthy soundbite. And yet he is a great leader, with talented and passionate people rallying around him in their thousands. Why should that be?

I believe it’s his passion that makes Bob Brown a leader. Bob sees what needs doing and he goes for it. He is dedicated, driven, committed, and utterly honourable. He leads from the front, always first to put himself and his principles on the line. Bob became a leader, not for power or control, but for change. He wanted things to change, so he stood up, grabbed them by the throat, and damned well made them change.

My friend, who is now on the management fast track, is the same. I don’t think he sees himself as a leader. He’s not interested in power, or making a big noise about his achievements (which are many). But he has a vision for how the world should be, and he wants to make it happen. And he will, too.

I am beginning to see that the best leaders have no particular interest in leading. They want to change things, to fix them. They accept leadership as a troublesome necessity for making that happen, but they are not interested in power for its own sake.

“Those who most want to rule should under no circumstances be allowed to.” Douglas Adams.

Leadership in politics and in business is all too often painted as being all about power and ambition. But that’s not leadership. That’s naked self-interest. Leadership is about a vision for the future. It’s about a drive to effect positive change, and to leave the world better than you found it. As Bob said, there is one question we should be asking that overrides all others:

“Will people 100 years from now thank us for what we are doing? If you can’t say yes to that, you ought not be doing it.”

 That’s leadership.