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Be yourself, with skill*

January 28, 2015

It is wonderful to see Kate Gross’ moving, funny book Late Fragments hitting the bestselling lists. If you haven’t come across it, stop reading this, and go and buy it now. Be warned, you will feel impossibly sad when you start reading it. But by the end you will feel curiously uplifted, despite her untimely death and all the unexplored possibilities she was forced to leave behind.

A friend of a friend, there are two particularly memorable meetings with Kate. One was a very wine-fuelled meeting back in the mid-2000s where she told me in no uncertain terms to get out of dire relationship that everyone else was being way too polite about (the right advice, which I acted on immediately and brutally, and wish now I’d thanked her for); and one meeting, when I was heavily pregnant with my firstborn, where her calm management of twins made me think Everything Is Going To Be OK Because I Am Only Having One Baby Thank God. So Kate, I salute you. Thanks for your advice both in life and through your beautiful book.

Kate talks powerfully about the hinterland I wrote about here. But for me the biggest message of her book is about the importance of peeling back the layers we shroud ourselves in – the projected hopes of our parents, the desire to be liked by nice people, the broader social expectations about our journey through life. Underneath all of these, Kate asks, what’s there? What really mattered to you when you were 10 and didn’t worry so much about your place in the world? Her advice, as a woman who was facing death far too early, was to focus on those things and let them take centre stage in your life.

This feels simple but mind-blowing to me. It also makes me feel so incredibly lucky to be embarking on a Clore Social Fellowship this year. I spent last week with an amazing group of people, and it feels like I begun the process of peeling back those layers. It’s an incredibly disruptive process for me, making me question why I am living where I am living and why my husband and I have split the childcare in the way we have. It has also left me clear that the Westminster bubble I’ve operated in for over a decade now holds very little allure. All this is liberating and exciting but also really quite uncomfortable. I feel like a trapeze artist who has let go of one trapeze without checking where I’m landing next. And I am terrified I am going to lose my nerve and end up, pissed off but safe, in thinktank Neverland once more.

Anyway part of this whole process for me is about stitching together my personal and professional self. Am I alone in being someone who has worked quite hard to separate them for most of my adult life? I suspect I’m not. The very way we frame the debate as ‘work/life balance’ suggests the best we can do is to keep competing forces in check, rather than find a true accommodation between them. I’m not sure this model of separate identities is the route to Kate’s urge to us to uncover our true passions and build our lives from there. So my journey over the next few months is not only back into the world of work, and back into the city in which I live (I am writing this in a trendy café in Soho – how exciting); it is also a journey back into myself. I promise this blog won’t become a shrine to naval gazing, but be warned, there might just be a little bit of that sometimes.

* an unusually insightful bit of leadership bollocks from Goffee and Jones Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?

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