A Tale of Two Fridays

Friday 29th December: Black Friday sends the global marketplace into a worldwide buying spree. The Guardian reports on ‘outstanding’ figures.

Friday 6th December: The United Nations climate change convention is in full swing. Greta Thunberg arrives, saying “I hope world leaders grasp the urgency of the climate crisis”. All week, The Guardian has been reporting on a mission to create an army of Gretas.

Tomorrow is Friday 13th December 2019.

Tomorrow the UN convention comes to a close.

Will we face up to the truth that we need to reduce consumption? Or will we continue to blindly consume, in the vain hope for ‘sustainable growth’?

When we don’t want to see

My brother sometimes works for a farmer doing building projects – let’s call him Harry.

I’ve never met Harry, but the talk I hear of him is that he’s one of those real ‘salt of the earth’ kinda guys. A real ‘grafter’. You know… just a simple farmer done good through hard work. An ordinary good guy who deserves it.

At least, that’s the way my brother frames it, and my dad. They both seem to admire him. They speak of him in a way that’s reserved for those good guys who are self-made men who’ve done it all themselves by sheer grit and determination.

Grit and determination. It plays into values around social mobility, about someone coming ‘from nothing’ and being a good honest guy who just works hard and ‘makes it’. He wasn’t born into it, that would be unjust. No, Harry’s a farmer. He’s no ‘suit’.

And yet, I can’t help but feel like the good honest guy thing is something they want to believe, rather than it necessarily being true. You see, Harry isn’t just a farmer. He’s now built a whole small industrial estate on his farmland which he’s going to great lengths to hide from public view so he doesn’t have to pay any tax on it. Along with his son, he’s now building houses and selling them – although according to what I’ve heard, the quality is not good, but he’s making great money on them. He’s created a network of CCTV cameras across his empire so he can keep track of everything, all of the time, from his mobile phone. He’s a multi-millionaire.

Like I said, he’s no farmer. He just happens to have a farm.

In fact, this work isn’t good and honest at all, is it? It’s tax evasion and shoddy workmanship. It’s corruption.

But he couldn’t do that. Ordinary people aren’t corrupt, because we’re not driven by greed. That’s others, that is. He’s just a farmer.

My brother has a real chip on his shoulder about ‘rich people’. He would never self-identify as coming from an upper middle class background – it goes against the identity he holds deep to his own core of being a grafter, someone who does good, honest work. And Tim does. So why would he admire someone like Harry?

For me, it comes down to how we judge people by what we want to believe, rather than what we can actually see. Tim and Dad have become so entrenched in the idea of Harry as a good guy, a self-made man, that they can’t see what’s right in front of them. They can’t, and they won’t.

I brought their relationship with Harry up the other day in conversation with my dad. “I find it weird that you guys would look up to someone like that – it seems mostly because he’s rich.” To which my dad answered, “But he isn’t, you know, rich like that.

He is, Dad.

He is rich like that.

There’s a phrase: “All that glitters is not gold.”

It’s time to coin a new phrase. Maybe I should try it out on my brother sometime. Would would it be? “Dirty hands do not an honest man make”?

How tight are those golden handcuffs?

Today I spoke to a friend (let’s call her Mel) about whether she would take a pay cut in exchange for a job that would be more rewarding. Mel is a friend who really analyses her impact on the world, and worries a lot about whether she is making her biggest contribution.  

She works in tech, and is earning about £70k a year. She’s love a job that was more in-line with her passions and values, but fears that jobs in the sector that interests her would knock £20-30k off her salary.

So – would it be worth the trade off?

What are your values worth, anyway?

A study in 2018 said that happiness in the UK is affected by increased income but only up to earning £43-54,000 a year; after which it has no effect on average – but we need to bear in mind that this is highly subjective.

For Mel, her salary represents both what she can do now, but also her safety net for the future both for herself and her family should they need it. She’s not particularly happy in her work, so this is a typical ‘golden handcuffs’ situation – she’s almost obligated to stay by the level of income, when taken into account with her need for it.

On the other hand, I’m lucky enough to have a family situation in which (hopefully) they will never need a safety net from me, and in fact are likely to leave me with inheritance that will help me when I’m older, should life follow that course.

In other words, I have the massive privilege of being able to de-prioritise income in favour of ethics and self-actualisation; whereas Mel needs to earn more money to reach the bar at which she knows she’s earning enough to be able to stop striving for more.

It served as a reminder to me to get off my high horse when thinking about the choices I’ve made that have enabled me to build a career that’s focused on the charity and non-profit sector. Yes, I’m still making money; but not as much as I could be by focusing on other clients. But is this because I’m inherently a better, more values-focused person? Probably not. If I were exactly the same person in terms of my values and ethics, but came from a background without the privilege I have now, I’d have to upwardly prioritise my income as it would impact more on my future.

In other words, the career choices of others are not necessarily morally black and white, and they certainly don’t happen in isolation.

They are influenced by their financial needs and level of existing privilege.

Maybe the golden handcuffs are tighter on some than they are on others.

Can perfectionism be selfish?

The chef who puts everything into your dinner, but by the time it’s ready you’ve already given up and left.

The website that really encapsulates what you stand for, but took a year longer and ran over budget.

The builder who does an amazing job, but finishes six months late.

Perfectionists have a narrative. A narrative that “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”.

But that’s a narrative that’s stuck with our society for too long; and – when unquestioned – is full of pitfalls.

Just think:

  • Can a fabulous birthday cake really be perfect if it wasn’t ready in time for the party?

  • Can a website really be perfect if it doesn’t suit the timelines and budget in a business’ strategic plan?

  • Can a house you need to move into really be perfect if you can’t live in it until six months later than planned?

Because really, perfection isn’t just about quality. It’s about balance.

It’s about understanding what’s enough to meet the needs of your customer. Not what’s enough to satisfy your ego.

So, when thinking about our perfectionism, here’s a question we could choose to reflect on:

“Is my perfectionism serving my needs, or the needs of others?”

Switching off the ‘property porn’

We’ve got programmes about buying a house.

Programmes about buying a second one.

A home abroad. A home by the beach. A house in the country.

About renovating a house. Extending a house. And about building one from scratch.

About decorating it. Finding antiques to fill it. Putting your personality on it.

About the perfect furniture, the perfect art, the perfect garden.

Making it yours.

And now we have programmes about how to deal with all the crap you’ve bought, because we have accidentally accumulated so much that it’s making us unhappy.

Maybe it’s time to switch off?

Don’t let comparison steal your joy

There’s always someone with more money than you.

More friends.

Better teeth, better skin, better hair.

A bigger house.

A more prestigious job title.

Theodore Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” And in the age of social media, comparison is stealing joy at an unprecedented rate.

But in comparing yourself to others, you’re measuring your success against the progress someone else is making on their goals – not yours.

Instead, focusing on consciously and purposefully defining your goals is the only way to measure yourself against what really matters to you.

Explore what success is as you define it. Think about what ‘enough’ looks like for you. Do the emotional labour – and go really deep into understanding what matters.

Once you’ve identified what enough looks like to you, anything that others have over and above that means nothing. It’s superfluous to your life. So take a deep breath out, let it go, and take comparison’s power away.

The dangerous narrative of sustainable consumption


Take two people.

‘Person A’ has a car. A yearly supply of new clothes. Imported food. Consumer goods. Plastic bottles of drink, wrappers, straws. Computers. An iPhone. A fully decorated and furnished house. They take a few flights a year.

‘Person B’ has a space to sleep on the dirt floor of a family home in which they subside on crops grown locally. And they don’t have any of that stuff, or take any of those trips; in part because they don’t have the money.

It’s clear who is making more impact on the environment.

Slogan hoodie, seemingly unironically produced by Pull & Bear.

And yet, when we measure how ‘green’ a country is, we’re using flawed logic to show that Person B is somehow ‘worse’.

Take the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by Yale University and Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

In this index, Switzerland – one of the world’s richest countries – is also the world’s ‘greenest’; and Burundi – one of the world’s poorest and hungriest countries – comes bottom.

Now, the EPI creators don’t actually use the word ‘green’. But others do. It’s easy to see why they’d make that link. After all, something called the Environmental Performance Index must be linked directly to overall environmental impact; right?

Wrong.

The EPI measures things like air quality, water quality and sanitation. All laudable goals.

But there’s something it doesn’t measure. Consumption.

This is a dangerous narrative. It’s wilfully ignoring issues that are plain to see for anyone willing to look. It’s dangerous because it tells us that a country that has way more than enough is somehow greener (and therefore more righteous) than a country that has nowhere near enough.

Consumption is the huge elephant in the room that nobody talks about. And why? Because it’s easier to ignore it. And here are two reasons.

  • It’s inconvenient because it would mean we’d need to encourage people to buy less stuff, and risk damaging the economy.
  • It’s also inconvenient because we can outsource its impact. A country like Switzerland might not be polluting as much as a manufacturing giant, such as China. But they sure as hell are using the products that required all the polluting activity in the first place, just to be made. In other words, they’ve transferred their pollution elsewhere. And yet ultimately, borders are porous and artificial – but we’re all part of the same planet.

We’ve got to change the narrative that tells us it’s ok to always aim for more, because we can do so sustainably. This narrative is an all out lie, because everything we produce has some environmental impact.

We have to challenge the narrative that tells us its ok to strive for more than enough. Instead, striving for simply enough could help us get to a better place. Only then we can start to define a new narrative that can face up to the reality of the task ahead of us.