Having chosen to swallow the red pill...

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The clothes maketh not the man

I am a brand strategist at an advertising agency. I work with getting to know the mind of the target and energising the relationship between my client’s brands and the desires of the target. It is an interesting area to work with because it is looking at people’s psychological make-up and helping products navigate that.

I work a lot with the emotional and rational criteria that people use in the buying process, and it is often when I am involved in the process myself that I realise both the strength of these decision criteria and the strength of the brands built around them. Yesterday, due to the factors mentioned in my previous post, I needed a new rain jacket. I had my rational criteria; I needed the jacket to be lightweight, breathable, wind-resistant and very water resistant. I also needed it to be able to pack down well and to have decent elasticity, so it stretched as my body moved.

So, as I walked into the outdoor shop, what happens? I go straight away to the well-known brands. From them I get two things; firstly I get a benchmark for what features are available at what price and secondly I feel that they are trustworthy. From this point onwards, the emotional reasoning takes over, as with each ‘brand’ I then get the associated brand imagery. This is a barely-conscious process, but it happens something like this:
- ‘Brand A’ is for people who demand high-performance clothing to face the worst nature can throw at them. They are rugged individualists. Am I a ‘Brand A’ person?
- ‘Brand B’ is for outdoor people who need lightweight gear to help them go places no-one else has. Am I a ‘Brand B’ person … and so on.

Once I had found the brand that I felt matched my ‘identity’ and had a jacket that I liked, I then moved back to the rational decision process, namely, ‘is this jacket available cheaper any place else?’

Anyway, at the end of the lunch hour, I brought my jacket, I found out that I wanted ‘tough clothing for tough conditions’ and I got some good insights into what I work with on a daily basis. I also got an insight into how advertising propagates the nature of suffering. By wrapping products up into attractive personality packages, we present them as the solution to people looking for a way out of their suffering, sort of ‘If I wear this, I will be popular’, or ‘If I wear this, people will think I am a surfer’ But, as we all know, the clothes maketh not the man.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Come on holidays…

I once promised in jest that if decent summer weather hadn’t come to Sweden by my birthday, I would emigrate to Australia. Well, I had better start queuing at the embassy. Apart from 4 days in May, when Ellie and I were working on the front garden, the weather has been either raining and cold or overcast and cold.

‘Just accept it and move on’ I hear you say… Sure but there are two factors, which keep hanging me up. The first is that after a long winter, everyone needs the sun and to be outside. You could see everyone laughing the first few weeks off, then gritting their teeth and finally now, they have just given-up and the first subject of conversation is about the lousy weather. The second factor is, and this came as a surprise to me, but, if the weather is good, there is no other place I would rather be than Sweden. In warm weather, Sweden is a beautiful country and its people really come alive.

The only thing keeping Ellie and I sane is the knowledge that as of next Monday, we will be flying away to a hot little island and our holidays will have begun.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Babylon Sickness and thoughts on TS Elliot’s ‘Four Quartets’

We are well educated, we speak several languages, we have travelled widely and we have worked and studied in different countries. We are a generation with choices. Too many choices. We are also a lost generation. We are suffering from Babylon sickness where the answer to our happiness is always just around the next corner. I know so many more like me, people who seem to be doing well but aren’t happy.

We are so privileged in so many ways and that very privilege is the root of our dissatisfaction. Having grown-up, having travelled around the world, having studied at home and abroad, having got the good jobs, we are used to things moving and being exciting, but life isn’t always that way. Suddenly things aren’t moving as before, career progression isn’t as rapid, we have kids, the mortgage brings an element of reality to our choices and eats into our travelling plans. All we know is that we are unhappy and have a nagging feeling that there must be more to life than this.

There must be more to life than this. And suddenly here we are, searching for Babylon. Babylon is different for all of us, and the problem is that I am not sure Babylon, as we imagine it, exists. Babylon is kind of a Xanadu or Shambala, a mystical realm of possibilities forever just beyond our grasp. We are suffering from Babylon sickness when we feel that there is a hole in our lives. Despite all we have got, we feel incomplete. Each time we find something that we feel can fill this hole we discover its impermanence and all too quickly, the hole is once again there.

My hope is that one day, we will be enlightened by the realisation that all paths lead back to the same spot. Exhausted by all our searching, all the disappointments and by being ‘filled with fancies, empty of meaning’, we will stop searching for a lifestyle and decide to get a life instead. As T.S.Elliot writes in ‘Four Quartets’: ‘The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time… and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’

If we can arrive here as weary pilgrims and just stop and just give-up the struggle and just let life overwhelm us, then I believe we will discover our Babylon and the doors to a more fulfilling life for us and the community around us will be opened.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

1 Swedish Crown

I was going through my pockets yesterday, looking for coins to add to the charity collection box that I keep on the bureau in the hallway. I usually put small change into the box and when it is full, leave it into the church or whatever charity I have been collecting for.

Anyway, amongst the coins that I put into the box was one old and well-worn coin and I stopped to think… what if this coin could tell its story? Since it was minted in 1963, how many pockets has it been in? What have those people been doing? How many times has it been exchanged for something? What has it been used to buy? Has it ever been fished out from behind the sofa or dug out of the washing machine?

And yet even if it could tell its own story, how small that would be compared to a person’s story, but how often is it that we actually stop and listen to a person’s story. To encourage them fist to tell it and then to listen and not to interrupt with better tales of our own. Not everyone is a good story-teller, but everyone has a story to tell. What’s yours? As Frasier Crane would say, ‘I’m listening.’

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

God moves in mysterious ways

Yesterday, I went to church and prayed. I prayed for an answer, a sign for how I should go forward. I prayed for peace from my constant questioning and second-guessing about what I am going to do. I prayed and then fell silent and listened.

Today, the answer came. One of the people who we co-operate with at work was on his way out of the door, and to my own surprise, I found myself getting out from behind my desk and asking his if he had a minute to spare. We went outside to take a breath of fresh air and I told him that I was looking to move on and did he have any ideas… and it just so happened that he did.

The funny thing is that I hadn’t even thought about asking him and the next thing I know, and almost without consciously thinking on my behalf, there we were talking business. God moves in mysterious ways.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Visiting Church

Walking into church,
There is a special silence, not just a silence from everything outside,
But a sense of peace that can best be described as an absence of thoughts.
That is the silence that I came seeking today.

I lit a candle, as always, to remember the dead,
To provide a light in the darkness
And to remind myself to live with a fire in my belly.

Then, kneeling down on the hard wood, I prayed…

…and when I had run out of words and questions,
I began to listen.
And only when I had listened long enough and my mind became still enough,
Only then could I hear the still small voice of God in my breath and in my heartbeat,
And only then could I find the silence I was looking for.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Putting things into perspective

As I read through what I have written below, these things are important to me, but it is important to get a sense of perspective.

I read a few days ago about Mattie Stepanek, who passed away last Tuesday. Mattie suffered from dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a form of muscular dystrophy, which had already taken his three older siblings. This disease basically meant that most of the body functions that we take for granted, such as digestion, body temperature regulation and breathing are difficult for him. He was wheelchair bound and needed to be constantly on oxygen to assist his breathing. Despite this and the losses of his siblings, Mattie could best be described as an old soul, who had learnt more in his short lifetime than most of us will acquire in ours. Mattie also wrote poetry with a childhood innocence and an incredible feeling for the power and pleasure of life in this moment and of the necessity for each of us to re-discover our own 'heartsongs' and share them with others. Mattie had five books published, his poetry is in the House of Congress, he was an avid public speaker all over America, a goodwill ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a black-belt in the Korean art of Hapkido and a philosopher with a mission to remind the world that life is a gift. When Mattie died, he was 13. His short life should serve as an inspiration for us all to count our blessings, treat every day as special and re-evaluate what we believe we can achieve with our lives.

Visit Mattie's website and read some of his thoughts for yourself: http://www.mattieonline.com/

Thursday, July 01, 2004

What if...

What if… I wished I could be like the little boy or girl who from the age of three wanted to be a doctor, then became a doctor and never looked back.

But, what if… they did look back, but I just never knew about it. What if… after working the long hours in hospital they were irritable with their family and hated themselves for it. What if they got frustrated by the hypochondriacs in their surgery trying to scam off their heath insurance policies. What if they hated having to line patients up like a conveyor belt and give them pills to pop, when they would rather be able to prescribe rest, good exercise, good diet and a loving family. What if they looked at all that they had given-up to get where they were and realised that they really wanted to do something else, but didn’t know what.

What if I wished I could be more like someone else, only to find out that they were more like me?