Hello. Please Open Me. We’re Back.

Good morning friends

I’ve missed you. I’ve missed the ritual of sitting down each week to write to you, to communicate with you. I’ve missed the conversations that follow. It is good to be back.

Well, strictly speaking, we’re not back yet. I am back. I am sitting at my desk writing to you. I have a nagging fear that you may have disappeared, that you’ve not noticed the absence of our conversation and so today’s letter won’t be opened. So, if you opened today’s letter and are reading it, thank you!

I am 60% of the way through How To Conduct An Annual Life Review. I had intended to have it done by today, but my parents contracted Covid over Christmas. Thankfully, they are through the worst of it and are on the road to recovery, but anxiety – as you all know so well – is an incredible sapper of energy.

I share this because there is a performative mythology that says your 2021 planning ought to be completed by 31 December. Well, mine isn’t. We don’t need to restrict ourselves to the calendar’s tyranny. We can start where works for us. So, if haven’t started, join me and let’s get it done together.

If it feels too much to do, just answer these three questions:

  • What were the two or three best decisions you made all year? What did you learn from those experiences?
  • Which relationships do you value most personally and professionally? What is it about these people?
  • What are you most thankful for?

Being aware of what enriches you, is an incredible source of resilience and points to the strength you can use to get through what is going to be another tough year. Share the answers over a glass of wine or a coffee with someone you love. It’s fun to do.

In my 6 September letter, Be Gentle and Ambitious, I cited a survey of Fortune 500 CEO’s, in which 50% predicted economic normal would only start to return in Q1, 2022. In other words, whilst we might have held to some fantastical hope that the 1st of January 2021 held in it some magic, the truth is it didn’t and, if we doubted that, the evidence is already in.

This will not be an easy year.

This is a time for patience, consolidation, for gentleness. And yes, keep hope alive, keep a sense of what you want the future to hold.

With that in mind, I thought we would be best served today by not worrying so much about big goals for the year but by focusing on how we might manage the year, how we might strengthen ourselves and those around us, how we might keep hope alive.

Before we start, take a look at Lee-Ann Heath and Georgina Gatrix‘s gorgeous creations. They are guaranteed to make you happy.

/ STRATEGY

Acclaimed musician Tina Turner has recently published a new book, Happiness Becomes You.

In this Harvard Business Review interview, she discusses her journey. She speaks about how she made her way back after finding herself in her forties, a virtually penniless single mother, having left an abusive relationship. It’s a lesson in the kind of approach that is needed at this moment.

The interview starts with Turner saying, “I used to be baffled about why I had to endure so much abuse, because I hadn’t done anything to deserve it.”

So many people that I have spoken to since the start of the year express that sense of bafflement, of overwhelm, tinged with frustration at how unfair it all feels.

Turner says this about when she was starting over:

“I never considered giving up on my dreams. You could say I had an invincible optimism. And I always knew that the “what” was more important than the “how.” In other words, although I had a hard time seeing how I could make my dreams come true, I focused more on what I wanted to achieve in my life, personally and professionally. I took actions day by day, often outside my comfort zone, to better myself and bring me closer to those goals.”

In this moment, it may feel impossible to see how to keep going. Keeping the ‘what’ alive and taking small daily actions will get you through it.

The interviewer asks Turner how she got the courage to leave her abusive relationship. Her answer was, “once I could see myself clearly, I began to change, opening the way to confidence and courage. It took a few years, but finally I was able to stand up for my life and start anew.”

The questions I extracted above from Steve Schlafman’s review are ones that will help you see yourself more clearly. That is the basis for developing any strategy, whether personal or organisational.

/ SELF

Donald Kau, Head of Communications at the V&A Waterfront, introduced me to Sisonke Msimang’s writing a few years ago.

In a beautiful essay, The Solace of Sundays, she speaks of the birth of her love for reading and how it has shaped her life. It is in a volume entitled, The Gifts of Reading, which I will tell you more about next week.

Msimang describes how her mother insisted that Sunday afternoons were hers, she was not to be disturbed and so Msimang and her sisters were compelled to stay in their rooms and read.

In a world in which school, home and work have collapsed into one messy tangle I thought the parents who read this letter might appreciate the tacit permission to create space for themselves and the gifts that space might create for their children.
She reflects, “as I think about it now, it is obvious that by insisting that we read, our mother was gifting us these big hearts that have carried us this far.”

Sometimes an ostensibly selfish act creates the space for others to grow. You will need to take time for yourself this year.

Msimang recounts discovering Ntozake Shange’s work and how “her words were a call to prayer, a way of beginning to worship ourselves.”

Reading can do that. It can gift a greater understanding of oneself.

She explains that she struggles to lend or gift her books saying, “I keep my books because although the very idea of the future is almost laughable at this point, it is also unimaginable that in the ill-defined distance ahead, my children’s children might exist without them.” And so, like Turner, although she isn’t clear about ‘how’ to get to the future, she is keeping the ‘what’ alive.

I have spent the last week building my 2021 reading list. Out of all the sources I reviewed, I liked The Economist’s the most. It balances a breadth of choice without being so long that it becomes overwhelming. For lovers of African literature, Brittle Paper’s list of Notable Books is an invaluable resource. Last, The 2020 Mighty Women Reading List for Adults is packed with great memoirs and biographies. Let me know which ones you’ve added to your list.

/ SOUL

To close, I thought I’d share this NYT story about the Carthusian monks who produce the liqueur Chartreuse. The order has been running for 900 years and they’ve been producing Chartreuse for the last 250. They know something about the long view.

Father Michael Holleran, a Catholic priest who was once a member of the order says this, “The Carthusians have a wonderful perspective. The days pass very quickly when you’re immersed in the shadow of eternity.”

Emmanuel Delafon, the current C.E.O. of Chartreuse Diffusion, the company charged with commercialisation on behalf of the order, reflects “When you have roots this deep, it allows you to forget the short term and project your vision far in the future.”

Our world with its always-on panopticon, and our increasing obsession to respond instantaneously to that urgent app alert, creates an anxiety that we need to act now.

With that pervasive anxiety the idea of waiting another month before grabbing that surf or hairdresser’s appointment, or even waiting out another year is impossible. Indeed, it becomes an existential threat – if we do not respond to that most recent message we may cease to exist. The Carthusians teach us that it is not so.

In the shadow of eternity, the days will pass quickly. Lift your gaze to a more distant horizon, breathe deeply and take the next step. This is a time for patience. A time for stamina. For gentleness.

It’s good to be back. See you next week. Please do say hello, I’d love to hear from you and if is the first time you’re reading this letter, you can subscribe here.

Karl

(This letter was first published on 13 January 2021)

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