Thursday, 17 November 2011

Think Small: the art of the achievable

We’re always being urged to “Think Big”, to stretch our imaginations to see what is possible, to visualise what we want to (and can) become.

It’s stirring stuff. Just the sort of thing to get us fired up at a motivational talk and walk out of the door ready to take on the world and emerge as the ‘next big thing’.

Unfortunately, for most of us, that’s about as far as it goes. With every step we take out of that inspirational talk, that ultimate goal slips further and further from our grasp. The more we focus on those grand ambitions, the harder it gets to imagine achieving them. The chasm between where we are and where we want to be is just too huge. Gradually, the dream fades and we settle back into the status quo.

After all, what you can’t imagine, you can’t achieve.

That’s where “Think Small” has to come in. The road to every grand design is paved with a series of small steps. Small, manageable and - above all - achievable stages.

You might dream of a fulfilling, harmonious home life. One free of petty squabbles about who didn’t change the loo roll, or how you’re going to pay the next pile of bills to drop into your letterbox. Clicking your heels together, a la Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz', is not going to make it happen. Transforming the everyday kitchen sink melodramas that populate our mundane lives into an oasis of serenity and warmth seems like Mission Impossible (cue music and Tom Cruise dangling from the ceiling). You cannot imagine it as achievable, so you give up.

But hold on. Rewind. Let’s take another look. Break it down into a series of small stages and maybe we can imagine achieving that coveted dream of a happy home life. Make a conscious decision not to go nuclear every time you reach for the toilet tissue to find the last visitor to the littlest room has left a single ineffectual sheet hanging sadly off the holder. Instead, plan ahead and make sure there is always a back-up of two or three rolls within arm’s reach.

When you want your teen to make their bed/do their homework/clear the table, resist the urge to screech like a banshee on speed. Instead, remind them calmly but firmly to do their bit (just be prepared to say it several times, preferably not through gritted teeth). Credit them with the maturity to make a useful contribution to the household.

And when the latest demand for your hard-earned cash lands on the doormat, don’t turn on your Other Half shouting accusations of profligacy, citing those new killer heels or that latest gadget as evidence. No-one reacts well to a harpy, and playing the victim just invites more abuse. Instead, take a deep breath, sit down and work out the solution. Together.

The same small stuff thinking applies to the world of work. If you dream of achieving something great in your professional life, don’t make a mental leap straight to the ultimate prize. You must have the vision, for sure, but if you don’t plot the steps that will get you there, you are doomed to disappointment.

Steve Jobs may have been one of those rare human beings to make huge mental leaps to something extraordinary, but even he took Apple through a series of steps that led to the must-have latest gadget to reshape our world. Back in the mid-90s, the company was in disarray and looked doomed to failure. Step by step, it was revamped, a new corporate vision was imagined and a series of small achievable stages were made to make it one of the world’s best-known brands. According to reports, Jobs’ legacy includes a list of thousands more innovations, yet more goals to be achieved after his demise.

So, next time you look up at your Grand Design and take a gulp of self-doubt, just stop and take a deep breath. Re-imagine it, with a pathway of small achievable steps that will eventually take you where you want to be.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Kicking against the cliché

We all love a good stereotype, don’t we?

They serve as a kind of mental shorthand that save us the trouble of actually thinking or examining something before we make up our mind. They save time and effort, easily find supporters, and are an absolute Godsend for tabloid headline writers.

Trouble is, though there’s often a seed of truth in most stereotypes, the cliché rarely tells the whole story. Like a caricature, they simply zoom in on a single characteristic and magnify it so much that it eclipses every other feature.

I’ve been battling the clichéd ideas of many folk for years, especially since moving to Greece more than 20 years ago. I quickly revised my ideas about all Greeks being consistently loud, flamboyant and prone to smashing plates. And contrary to their expectations, many Greeks I met were surprised to learn I don’t like beer, am bored to distraction by football, couldn’t make a dainty cucumber sandwich to save my life, have never had a hangover, and – until the Family Tree fanatics uncover evidence to the contrary – I am not related to the Queen.

I do, however, like Marmite.

I am undeniably English in many ways. It’s a simple matter of fact. I’m me, I’m English, I’m happy with who I am but I have no reason to consider myself superior or inferior to anyone by virtue of my accident of birth.

I am not responsible for the highs and lows of my mother nation (Note the Greek friends: Blame Lord Elgin for the looted Marbles, not me!).

I have as much in common with David Cameron and the Milliband of Brothers as I do with a small furry creature from Outer Centauri.

Sad to say, elected representatives rarely mirror the lives and outlooks of the people who vote them in. They are almost always way more privileged than the hoi polloi they claim to represent. Many have never had a real job outside politics. Few have any real concept of the daily kitchen sink dramas that punctuate our mundane lives.

When I first arrived, Margaret Thatcher was still in residence at No.10 Downing Street (yes, I’ve been here THAT long) and the response of many when they learned where I’d arrived from was “Ah! Maggie Thatcher!” with varying degrees of admiration or disgust, depending on their political allegancies. Lord knows how much saliva I wasted trying in vain to explain just how NOT like the Iron Lady I was.

So, I have a vested interest in trying to smash clichés that inevitably raise their ugly heads.

Over the past few months, the Greeks have received a very, VERY bad press internationally. And this week, the actions of politicians have made them seem like Drama Queens of the worst kind.

But don’t fall into the cliché, I beg you. Contrary to the message perpetuated by headlines in publications like the Daily Mail, most Greeks are not lazy, dissolute, donkey jockeys who are good for nothing but a bit of local colour when you’re on your annual hols on one of their islands. Most are hard-working, highly educated, ambitious people who just want to pay their dues, raise their families and live a decent life.

Yes, there have been explosions of violence amid the mostly peaceful (if noisy) demonstrations outside Parliament. But can you honestly say they were more horrifying that the outbreaks of feral looting and destruction in London and other English cities this summer? Despite the high passions you see on show on your TV screens, statistically violent crime in Greece is (still) at much lower levels than in many other countries.

Yes, there is corruption and tax evasion. Isn’t there everywhere? Most Greeks DO pay their way – it’s the privileged few who have the influence and resources to wiggle their way out of their obligations that have landed the country in the current mess they’re in. Just think of the UK MPs’ expenses scandal – does that mean every Brit is a crook?

Yes, there has been endemic mismanagement of many elements of many aspects of Greek public life for years. But can you honestly say that everything where you live is run as it should be?

Yes, some Greeks are chancers who will take every chance to cheat the system or pull a fast one for financial gain. Have you forgotten good old Del Boy and his like, those lovable rogues that can be found on any British High Street?

Despite our differences, there’s more that unites us than divides us.
So next time you see the bi-polar antics of Greece’s politicians or the anger of the crowds in Syntagma Square in front of Parliament, bear in mind the ordinary families that are just trying to make the best of things as their lives are dragged along in the wake of high drama.

All they really want is to sit down and relax in the company of people they love, and perhaps share a laugh over a cup of coffee.

As for me, well when it comes to beverages I DO fit the cliché.
When the going gets tough, I put the kettle on.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

May we live in interesting times (?)

Well, these certainly are interesting times, aren’t they?
At least, they are if you define “interesting” as “unpredictable, subject to wild mood swings, uncertain and teetering of the brink of an abyss” rather than “engaging and worthy of further study”.

I guess there’s a reason why the phrase is considered a curse rather than a blessing.

Turmoil has been a key characteristic of life in Greece for at least a year now. Crippling austerity is being imposed on the majority of simple hard-working, working and middle class people, who are understandably peeved when they see the country’s fat cats continuing to enjoy most of the privileges that have contributed to the dire state of the national economy. The overpowering mood of the country is one of frustration, disillusionment and powerlessness in the face of the overwhelming odds that are casting a huge black cloud over everything.

So, you might think that some would welcome Prime Minister George Papandreou's announcement of a referendum to ask the Greek people to vote on whether they want the austerity measures.

The same austerity measures that have been announced as non-negotiable and have already started to be implemented over the past months.

The measures that have cut salaries, raised taxes and put a stranglehold on the country’s commercial life.

If we were going to have a referendum, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to do so BEFORE the measures we’re to be asked about started raining down on the heads of common people? Or before extra funds were devoted to printing and sending out of demands for extra taxes to households around the country? Or before assuring our creditors that Greece is committed to the changes they demand to secure a bail-out?

If Angela Merkel and Nicola Sarkozy were gob-smacked by the Monday evening's bombshell, you should see how it hit us. The first reaction was disbelief and “What the ...?”.
Then, we started to think through the likely consequences of the shock announcement and we were left angry, bemused and utterly at a loss at what could possibly be gained from such action at this late stage in the game.

Personally, I wonder if the PM simply had a brain fart.

I’m no political Svengali but from where I’m sitting the PM's apparent attempt to throw responsibility for the fate of the country to its people – basically telling them “give me the mandate or on your own heads be it” – looks like political suicide.
Actually, it looks like a political suicide bombing - as it’s certainly set to take a lot of folk with him.

Maybe it’s all part of a complex conspiracy to destroy the Euro Zone or establish a New World Order? Who knows?

I do know is that these are the kind of interesting times I could do without.
I also know that I am powerless to do anything about it.

All I can do is hang on and grit my teeth, along with everyone else, as history takes us on a crazy ride with an unknown destination. And as the autumn evenings close in on us, I’ll be curling up on my sofa (as long as it’s still mine), wrapped in an old blanket, sipping my tea and thinking about what soup I can make from the dregs at the bottom of my fridge.

Some don’t have it so good.