Thoughts become things

My thoughts are slippery, tricky things. Ideas come and go across my mind all the time. In clinical terms my thought patterns are described as “Knight’s move” thinking (after the chess piece), me, I tend to describe it as having a butterfly brain. It can infuriating for others and yet also leads to insights and connections that would escape me otherwise. All in all I generally consider it one of the better parts of having a mental health condition.

A number of months ago I was co-facilitating a day where we were mapping a process. In order to bring the map to life I gave each team a Lego minifigure to move around their emerging design. I noticed that people spoke more openly and confidently when they placed the figure and that everyone wanted to have a “go” with it. Which got me thinking……..

I’ve been refining some of the work I do. I never meant to move in to mental health training but it seems an inevitable side effect of coming out so I’ve embraced it. Time and again I’ve found that people devour the rich content of say Mental Health First Aid but still struggle with how to break down the stigma or challenge the discrimination. Which got me thinking……..

Mental Health is a complex, confusing and contradictory subject. Symptoms can be significantly different for two people with an identical diagnosis. Yet so often when we are portrayed in the media the accompanying image is the standard “headclutcher” picture. It’s universal and comes in all different colours, creeds, abilities, sexualities. Which got me thinking……..

Most people have a way they see themselves, a persona, an archetype. Perhaps a role they see that they fulfil in the world. Similarly in organisations, people get pigeonholed by colleagues, by their boss. It’s not all of who they are but it represents some version of some truth even if it’s not rooted in fact. Which got me thinking……..

As you can tell, I do a lot of thinking. Some would say I overthink (it’s a fair cop). I also do quite a bit of talking and so I took my series of ideas away with me when I went to visit with friends and colleagues. Chances are that if we’ve spoken in the last few months then you’ve unwittingly contributed a piece to what I’m building, helped me construct a better version. These conversations have happened in diverse places – in Royal Colleges, at kitchen tables, over a beer, out on a bike, on long walks. They’ve been both virtual and real, in England, Scotland and the USA. To all of you – thank you.

Today I’m launching a new twitter feed and website to highlight everyday stigma and discrimination. You’ll find content via @Mental_Blocks and replicated on the website Using Lego figures I am going to tell a story about how stigma and discrimination affects people. There will be several new images a week and the narrative will build, adding new characters and situations as it goes. Whilst I’m starting with a workplace narrative there will be a chance for people to suggest directions for the story or if they have specific issues they wish to see explored then I hope to be able to accommodate that too. Over time this will build in to a compelling resource highlighting good workplace practice but it won’t always be comfortable reading. My hope is that the fun and approachable nature of the Lego figures will enable anyone, from any community, to engage with the messages I am sharing.

Which brings me to my final point. Aside from all the friends who have helped I also have a co-creator. That person prefers to remain anonymous currently. Not least because of the risk of potential stigma and discrimination they may face if their involvement became public. Which is what The Mental Blocks is aiming to change…… Please follow, tweet and retweet the images widely. RSS the blog, share the links with friends and colleagues. By all means download the images and use them as starting points for conversations. All I ask is that you credit us and comment on the blog when things are useful for you.



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Three little words

As a guy who is endlessly curious about the world, one of the great joys of working for myself is the sheer variety of organisations I get to visit. I’ve blogged before about working with organisations with a real sense of heart, living by their values and trust me, it’s a real joy when you work with companies that are clear about what they stand for.

Last week I was at The National Archives at Kew. I’ve done a variety of things there, mainly around Mental Health and we were having a catch up meeting when one of the attendees gave me a copy of the in house magazine so that I could see what people had said about workshops I delivered. However, I was transfixed by the front cover – it had an address from the new “Keeper” (Chief Executive in modern parlance but they still also use the historical title). He was really clear about what he expected from people in the organisation and also what he would do to support that. Even more than that though my eyes were drawn to the values they espouse.

“Integrity, Possibilities, People”

I want to break down what intrigued me about each word.

Integrity – I guess this is fairly self explanatory but it’s interesting that it’s the first value. Absolutely clear from the start. I presume there is something about the factual nature of the work they do there which puts a heavy expectation on the ability to be correct and truthful. They hold all our records after all. During my work with the organisation though it’s been clear to me that integrity is very much apparent in the way they’ve dealt with me, even simple things like paying invoices have been done well.

Possibilities – This was one which may surprise you. As an organisation devoted to historical record the archives are actually very forward looking. They are keen to see new ways to connect and interpret their collection. They have regular “lunch and learn” sessions for staff on a wide variety of subjects. (Recently I was there on the same day as Lucy Worsley). They are also keen to connect the diversity of their knowledge with real world applications, changing how we think about the past and how that may inform the future in new and interesting ways. It reassures me that the civil service are so innovative.

People – Considering the records are in / on every conceivable type of recording device / medium – paper, canvas, audio, microfiche, computer records, photograph etc etc the archives are very aware that their work is about the people, for the people. I hear them talk with great affection about the general public who use their services. Case in point they don’t depersonalise them and use the term “service users” as so many government agencies do these days.

Internally, they are about collaboration and supporting each other but not in a stuffy way. A quote from their detailed values document “We do some serious stuff, and we do it seriously well. But it’s done a lot better when there’s a bit of laughter about.” – To give some sort of idea, their Intranet is called “Narnia”

I love that an organisation as complex as The National Archives can be really clear what it stands for. So simple and so elegant.

What would your three words be?

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Unconditional positive regard

On Sunday evening whilst you were tucked up in bed I was finishing a course I’ve helped deliver in California. There have been 3 modules of 5 days and with this commitment of time also comes the chance to really get to know the delegates. It’s been a large group of approximately 45 people so naturally there will be some you get on with better than others. It’s certainly true to say that there have been frictions and fall outs in the room. However, due to the nature of the content there is an expectation that all of us will be resourceful and work through these conflicts.

When it was time to present the certificates the lead trainer said he wanted to trial something from the work of the psychologist Carl Rogers – the idea of “unconditional positive regard”. The idea being that a therapist accepts the client for what they are, even if they disagree with their actions. By accepting the natural value of the person you provide the best chance of personal growth. The management adage of “separate the person from the behaviour” is a simple expression of this approach.

We formed a circle and as your name was called you moved in to the circle and once there everyone said a word or phrase with which they would describe you. Not one at a time but all at once. The theory being that you were underneath a shower of words as people spoke, repeated themselves, had different things to say with varying lengths. Being a slightly cynical Brit I was ready to put this down to it being California and a bit hippy dippy. I was also concerned about some of the more divisive figures in the group. However as I watched person after person hold themselves a little taller, smile a little more and become visibly emotional I was ready to accept it.

As part of the delivery team we went last and even after all that I was unprepared for what it felt like to be in the middle of 40 people who all had something good to say about you. In all honesty I couldn’t pick out everyone’s words but seeing the smiling faces around me, the warmth and positivity were amazing.

Now I don’t think I’m going to start this ritual at the end of every course I deliver but it really made me think about just how generative and affirming such a process is. It made me muse on how I can better show people that I see their intrinsic worth and value. I don’t have the answer to that, I suspect it’s a process with myriad opportunities to practice so I shall go forward and see what I find out. Anyone care to join me in this experiment?

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Self help?

I bought a book over the weekend. It was all of 10p – ex stock from my local library. Except strangely it had never been loaned, it was in perfect condition. Someone had obviously thought to buy it for the library and then perhaps someone else decided there wasn’t a use for it. The book was by the popular and respected writer Tom Rath and its subtitle is “Positive strategies for life and work”. Which you’d think is a book that might be useful to someone, somewhere. Heck this is a New York Times number 1 best seller. Oprah liked it, Deepak Chopra too and if you prefer your recommendations a little more robust then Martin Seligman is also a fan.


When I worked for London Underground I was given a 360 degree appraisal. Most people in leadership roles got one. It was a useful process for me and opened my eyes to a few things. Based on my scores the L&D team had suggested a reading list, much of which was to be found in the company library. I duly trotted down to the library after work one day. Having been assessed about halfway through the corporate programme I wasn’t too optimistic that any of the books I needed would be there. Still I thought it best to get my name on the wait list.

When I got there the librarian couldn’t have been more helpful. Absolutely the books were in stock, many of them in new editions bought by the company to support this process. I selected the first 3 on my list and flicked through. None of them had been taken out.

I moved on to some of my second choices. As I recall these were hardy standards such as Covey or Drucker – the doorstop books as I like to think of them. No new editions needed here, plenty of stock already in the company. Most of them last taken out several years before. Approximately at the date of the last big corporate initiative in leadership.

Barely used.

I guess you could account for the difference between then and now saying that these days we all prefer a snappy TED talk or a colourful infographic but I think there is also something deeper at work.

There is an assumption that most people within organisations are crying out for some investment, they want the deeper knowledge, the development that good training brings.

Do they?

I mean undoubtedly some of them do but most? I’m not so sure that’s the case. I’ve seen plenty of instances where people have acted counter to the values / aims / mission of their company. Quite a few where people have knowingly failed to discharge their legal duty. Even some where people have distinctly set out to do harm to colleagues / the organisation as revenge.

So I guess my question is should we help those who won’t help themselves?

I don’t know the answer but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


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Fit for purpose

Since knee surgery I’ve made a slow but steady comeback on my bike. I’ve struggled with motivation but have inched forward bit by bit. I’ve returned to the sort of distances and speeds I used to turn out but something has still been wrong. Burning pain in my quadriceps after a ride. I’ve also felt my confidence in corners has not fully returned and I’m left wondering whether physically and mentally I’m not the same rider I was.

When I originally got my bike it was set up by a friend with a massive amount of expertise. He has built literally hundreds of bikes in his time. His previous job as a bike tour guide meant that he had constructed and adjusted bikes regularly for an ever changing cast of riders with all their varying fitment needs. So when I decided to get a commercial bike fit I was worried that this was somehow an insult to him but I knew that something wasn’t right.

I did some research around the net, spoke to a few friends. The general opinion was that the best bike fitters just “know”, that they can size you up as you walk in the door. Also there was a feeling that recent technological developments / systems may all be a bit smoke and mirrors. In the end I settled for a mixed approach.

I contacted a guy called Adam White. He offers the Retül system currently in use by many of the pro teams but that wasn’t why I chose him. It was more about his commitment to biomechanics and how he wanted to approach bike fitting – seeing it as an entirely personal thing. Certainly the questionnaire he sent me was incredibly detailed.

I arrived at his studio a little nervous and found a guy much younger than I expected (or maybe I’m just getting older). He explained how he had got in to bike fitting, how the process would work and how long it would take. First off was a physical assessment, see what my range of movement was. Adam had trained originally as a physio so knew his way around the human anatomy & I was impressed with his attention to detail. Next up I got on the bike to see if his initial suspicions were confirmed. Once we had done that then he attached a whole bunch of sensors to me and the system recorded me in 3D. From there he could make a judgement about where we needed to start.

20140714-061935-22775768.jpgIn essence I was collapsing from the pelvis and my balance was skewed. I seemed stretched on the bike to his eyes which was something I hadn’t noticed but made perfect sense. Rather than the bike he made the first adjustments to my shoes (I ride clipped to my pedals). I hopped back on the bike. There was a definite improvement. Next he tweaked the saddle up & forward a tiny amount. It helped even more. We moved it again, this time too far so we went back to the first adjustment. I was blown away by how 2mm of adjustment up and perhaps 1cm forward made such a difference. He was clear that there had likely been nothing wrong with my setup pre-injury but that as I healed, favouring my left leg I had imported weaknesses to my riding position.

I left Adam with strict instructions from him to try a couple of gentle rides first to allow myself to adjust. I went out on Saturday evening and right from the off the bike felt more agile and responsive, I felt more confident in the corners and able to apply power more smoothly and precisely.

Why am I telling you all this? Well it got me thinking about how we get used to things over time, how we cope and adjust to situations that aren’t terribly healthy for us mentally and emotionally, personally or professionally. Yet a tiny bit of adjustment (12mm on the bike and 1cm on my shoes in my case) may transform our lives.

Where have you allowed yourself to get bent out of shape? Where could you make a tiny adjustment in your life and transform your future?

P.S. All this cycling stuff is in a good cause. I’m just £40 from my target in my latest charity ride for Mind. Could your small donation help me get to the start line? Please support me.

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The abyss gazes also in to you

It’s one week on. This is the test. The first Monday of a new era.

My years worth of therapy ended last week. We didn’t just waffle away the last session, there were still some more learnings to come out and we went right up to the final whistle. A firm handshake (I wanted to hug her but I’m twice her size and worried I’d break her) and I emerged blinking in to the light.

When I started therapy I was mindful of the Nietzsche quote;

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

I was frightened of what therapy would bring up, the dark thoughts from a life lived partly in shadow, maybe the final accounting for some of my deplorable behaviour when manic in past years. Also I was afraid that there wasn’t much hope for me. Able to function (albeit badly) I knew I had to make the most of this chance. For me it felt like everything was riding on it. I had let down too many people, hurt so many others and also hurt myself…….

……….and yet there is also a side of me which has always stood up for those less fortunate or able. I’ve been the watchman, patrolling the gates. Could I let my own guard down long enough for some help and understanding?

I have stood for a year on the edge of my own personal abyss, gazing in to it. It has gazed back with an unwavering stare. It has exposed my weaknesses, laid bare many of my defences but I have also fought back, striven to understand myself. I have tried to stop “thinking my feelings”, have tried to forgive myself and accept some situations for what they are. In some cases I have been successful, in others less so.

So that’s it. Therapy is done and I’m released back to my GP. I get a review in six months but unless there is a major relapse I’m on my own – and that scares me. I’m worried about how it goes from here. Whether the bad dreams and the terrors will return, whether I am strong enough to cope without the regular support, the release of tension that characterised my sessions. Already my sleep is disturbed but that might just be a phase.

The feeling was that more therapy would be beneficial, however I’ve had all I’m allowed. They offered to find me someone who would take private clients but I can’t bear to tell my story again to a new therapist. I also know that I’m better off than many out there. Currently I can earn a living and have a large degree of autonomy in my life. I need to apply myself in order to stay healthy, I need to make that happen because as I found a few years ago it can all slip away from you very quickly.

So for now, I’ve walked away from the edge of the abyss. I’ve battled with monsters but hopefully I’ve kept that human part of me.

The watchman who stands up for others must also stand for himself.




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On air

One of the joys of working for myself is the option to choose my contracts and my colleagues. Being a “one man band” means that I do need to team up with other freelancers in order to deliver some pieces of work. I’ve been lucky to find some great people via social media and I’m pleased with the projects we have delivered for a variety of clients.

Some of the work I’ve done has been alongside Bev and Kate of the Clear Thinking Partnership. They are very interested in collaboration and how people can work better in teams and organisations. In order to research this they have been interviewing colleagues on Google Hangouts – this week they asked me to contribute my perspective.

Now it’s fair to say I’m self conscious on camera at the best of times and being interviewed doubles that discomfort so it’s a testament to Bev’s question technique that I felt comfortable talking about collaboration. It was a tough ask but I knew I could trust Bev when we went out on the air. I won’t spoil the content but I hope you find my example useful.

My final point is that whilst I wasn’t a fan of the hangout as a mechanism, there are so many tools now available to help people create, edit, share and record content that you’ll easily find one that works for you. Give it a whirl and see where it takes you – hopefully in to some great collaborative work.

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