Striving for perfection and new norms

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In a recent podcast featuring the journalist Will Storr, two powerful statistics were shared: 1.) in 2014, on average, 93 billion selfies were being taken on a daily basis on smart phones, and 2.) one third of all the photos taken by 18-25 year olds were photos of themselves.

Storr’s interview surfaced his strong beliefs around how neo-liberalism (“new freedom”) took hold in the early 1980s, and he quotes Margaret Thatcher as being a key – and “sinister” – architect of the movement.

Thatcher believed that a societal reframing (in the global “West” at least) around individualistic values, would pivot away from the uprising of collective movements, experienced during the 60s and 70s, and their outpourings against established government and private sector structures.

As Thatcher famously said: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.”

The premise for his first book, Selfie, lays out Storr’s own perspectives on the toxicity of what then unfolded, from around 1983 onwards, up until the present time.

In particular: the rise of fitness videos; self-improvement manuals; and, in short, the slow march towards such colloquial mantras as “anything is possible” or that “all things are achievable, no matter who you are”.

Storr goes on to make strong links between individualism, social media and the current surges in the number of people self-harming, committing suicide or being affected by body dysmorphia.

For myself, living in Vietnam for the best part of 9 years now, it was interesting that Storr used as his comparison the constructs of East and West, historically representing juxtaposed cultures.

In the East, there are consistent examples of societal norms being inclined towards a collective. Whether that is through family circles, faith-based or local community structures, or through more institutional level socialist frameworks. However, I see this changing from my Asian vantage perspective, towards a more individualistic mentally superseding what has gone before.

Today, as I board yet another plane, it does often feel to me more and more that, cultural norms aside, we are all gradually morphing into one chaotic, opinionated cacophony of online noise and garbage – digital pleasure-seekers more inclined to pursue our own, rather than a shared, agenda.

As Storr points out, that we can connect with the world’s most successful people, via social media platforms, only serves to artificially heighten the potential for us to want to be that successful ourselves.

We might rationally rebut that urge, however the brain is hard-wired to make sense of the world and create the right conditions for each of us to feel justified in our actions and our personas – however we live our lives.

I step onto airplanes, for example, deftly soporific and eased into sleep as my plane makes for the runway, because I’ve chosen to believe that the carbon emissions I’m contributing to are made acceptable because I’ve recently made an effort to eat less red meat, and because I don’t own a car.

Sounds trite. And, as an argument, is bonkers. But I think it nonetheless, and I’ve no doubt other people make their own moralistic arguments to themselves, in order to dilute the guilt often felt when indulging in things we know to be morally ambivalent.

If that is the case – that each of us is susceptible to making choices and taking positions that favour our desire driven choices – then it is equally feasible that each of us is susceptible, however slight or unconscious, to wanting to achieve a form of individual perfection.

Just as connectivity offers up so many tantalizing and nourishing opportunities, so too is it driving these trends and habits rapidly forward.

If you were born in the 1990s, then your exposure to smart phones and the internet is almost as normal as walking and talking. My own children are still mostly at arm’s length to social media (aged 8 and 11) however it’s lurking around every corner of their lives.

Storr is disdainful about what is lurking around corners. Idealistic, sugar-coated calls to action, for example, that pop up in advertising or on social media platforms: “follow your dreams” they clamor, “you can be anything you want to be”.

If Will Storr had his way, all of these feel good quotes would be removed from our lexicon, given “they’re simply not true”.

In which case, what should replace these sentiments? Less incentives to dream big, and more reality checks? Is that what young people should busy themselves with instead of worrying about which filter to use on their next Instagram picture?

On the one hand, yes, 100%. We’ve lurched too hard and too quickly into the narcissistic arena that Storr is describing. But what is the compromise between utterly dismantling this digital architecture and these false-hope aspirations?

I don’t have definitive answers to this, other than to suggest limitations on what currently exists. Holding people – young people especially – back from experiencing and accessing social media would only serve to heighten their thirst for it.

Curbing screen-time for children, and at times removing the lure of it completely by breaking up routines is, perhaps, a start.

But then I also feel hopeful that the anti-social media movement is already underway.

Just as many societies are seeing drops in the uptake of drug usage and alcohol consumption across younger generations so are there spaces appearing for the fierce opposition to the growing network of tech companies who control these platforms and, by association, have crept into our lives.

There will, inevitably, be a toppling of those who currently monopolise these systems.

What remains in question is what will replace them.

 

Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?

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Gaza, May 2017 – https://definitelymaybe.me/2018/05/11/money-is-power/

It was during a Business in the Community event in the summer of 2006 that I first met Carol Monoyios, CARE UK’s Marketing Director, and responsible (in part, at least) for the fact that I spent the next 13 years working for CARE International.

Carol and the organization’s then Programme Director, Raja Jarrah, had hatched a plan and it was to be my fate, attending that July event, to end up playing the role of their main protagonist.

Their plan was, and remains, a simple one: create a multi-functional team inside of CARE to work with businesses and markets in a new and more impactful way.

What various colleagues across CARE’s system had determined, the year before at a conference in Nairobi, was that there were many ways to work with business and markets, with the purpose of supporting CARE’s mission of empowering women and girls, but these were not being centrally coordinated very well.

Inside of the NGO sector at that time, most agencies who took money from business were using this largely as a means to fund projects. A separate department would then typically manage the organisation’s “market development” programmes – the result being that these two functions were not collaborating.      Continue reading “Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?”

Eyes on the prize

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Coco Gauff. Wimbledon, 2019.

I sat up and watched the first half of last night’s Women’s World Cup Final between USA and Netherlands, and it made great viewing. I’m no soccer pundit but I have immense respect for the idea of the game as a platform for many things. Exercise, competition, entertainment – it’s been called the most popular sport in the world.

A source of extreme sponsorship deals and extortionate salaries, soccer’s unique blend of controversy and celebrity continue to guarantee it a levitated brand status amongst millions of young wannabe players or ageing supporters.

In the UK, football is more important to some people than religion, family, work, or any truly higher plain or life calling. Without soccer, for these disciples, life would fundamentally cease to have meaning.

Where you fall on the side of loving or despising the “Great Game” itself, 2019 will surely go down as the year that the world woke up and recognized just how wholly discriminatory the world of soccer has been towards women. That will simply now never be the same again.     Continue reading “Eyes on the prize”

A Letter to my 18-year-old Self

Dear Me,

Congratulations on your recent birthday, and on finishing up your ‘A’ level exams this morning!

Who’d have thought you’d make it through those intact, after such appalling mock results, and no University offers in the bag. You can now, at will, rapidly forget all those Shakespeare and Aristophanes quotes you learnt in the woods with ‘JR’, deliriously smoking packs of cigarettes, whilst counting down the days until this one – the day you got to put your biros down, walk out of the familiar, and off into a world of new.

Full marks, too, for all the extra-curricular activities safely executed upon these past two years at boarding school. It gives me considerable joy to report that no long-term damage was caused by any of said activities and exploits. In fact, you may well have been all the better shaped from them. Who knew?!

The summer holidays you are about to embark on will be some of the very best times of your life. Bettered only by each and every chapter that unfolds, year after year, from now on – all the new twists and turns you will encounter in the process offering up maddening and exhilarating experiences in equal measure. But, don’t worry, I can vouch for the fact that you at least get through to 44 years old, relatively unscathed.

I’ve no wisdom to impart to you that will be any more influential on your life than by learning it yourself, on your terms, and when you are ready. Although, if you are reading this, then a few things maybe to throw into the mix (you know how much you/I like to offer up nuggets, when given half a chance):-

With these unfolding chapters and experiences that I have just forewarned you about, seeking comfort and reassurance from different sources can tie you over (books, physical challenges, bottles of wine shared with entrusted friends) however, the trick is to create your personalized palate of truths, from within your own ample stock of resources. You don’t have to rush this. Let it come when the time is right;

We do all, of course, only go round once (as one of your future inspirations will reaffirm) and so, where we can, we’re the more fulfilled in the end if we spend these days with our ears open and our perspectives in a constant state of flux. You will travel, you will place yourself in situations to do just this – over and over – and you’d be wise to never stop doing so, even if that means staying in one place for a long period of time. There will be ways (technology, you’ll see) to do this, that haven’t been invented yet;

Be thoughtful, even when you don’t think you need to be;

Be present, even when you are not;

Moreover, find connection in as much as you can. People, places, objects, activities. Love.

All the rest is an assortment of choices, indulgences, emotions and circumstance. Life’s tombola. Full of surprises it can be, so don’t be afraid to ever buy a ticket and put your hand in to see what is there.

Believe in yourself (just look what you pulled off with those exams) and be sure to write to me in the future.

Your ever-loyal Self,

Me

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Day of my last ‘A’ level exam. June, 1993.

 

Innovations in Resilience

 

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Monday commuters at the end of our street this morning. Photo credit: Stephanie Le @saigonsteph

Over the last 24 hours Saigon has been submerged by Typhoon Usagi – officially the “longest and heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Saigon history”. Earlier last night, me and the girls schlepped home from a friend’s house, up to our knees in water and, overnight, our downstairs bathroom and kitchen were mildly flooded.

Thousands of other city residents here were less fortunate – one man was killed by a falling tree not far from where we live, and stories were shared overnight of people abandoning their homes and finding refuge elsewhere.

I’ve written before about storms in Saigon, and the natural occurring disasters in South East Asia more generally, but this current season has been busier than normal.

Vietnam often escapes heavy storms, thanks to the Philippines, a country well versed in combating typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms. I’ve visited the country twice this year, working with CARE team in Manila who manage the TUKLAS Innovation Labs – a initiative supported by UK Aid and The Start Network that seeks out new ideas and solutions from local communities, to help them better prepare for the typhoons and storms which routinely batter the country’s shores.     Continue reading “Innovations in Resilience”

A short story of self

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Uganda.

I remember the moment I started really thinking about inequality. I was 22 years old and part way through a year of teaching in Uganda. As cliched as that year has the potential to be (for the privileged expat that I am) and as eye-glazingly pathetic as this anecdote might come across, I’ve thought it through a fair few times over the two decades since, and it was out there, halfway down the main orange dustbowl of a road outside of the room I rented behind a local bar, that things changed for me.

It took only one minute – and it will forever raise the hairs on my arms.

It was Sunday, and I was walking into the local town – Kiboga – with Julius, the headmaster of one of the schools at which I was employed as an English (and football!) teacher.

As was customary, a walk into Kiboga, on any given day, would involve multiple greeting stops, and smiles and gestures to my neighbours. Students on bicycles might swing past me shouting “yes, Master!” or a group of half dressed toddlers would canter several metres towards me from out of their houses yelling “Mazungu! Mazungu! how are you Mazungu?”     Continue reading “A short story of self”

Drawing Down

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Running in the forests of Siam Reap this weekend

Over the weekend I was in Siam Reap and, for whatever reason, found myself enchanted by the trees and the colours and the red earth. Not in any particular novel way, but in a way that connected to something I may have simply been ignoring for my entire adult life: that simple truth about the fragility of life and changing our own lives whilst we are fortunate enough to be here.

It’s not as if I haven’t been listening to the scientists and the campaigners. Even on these pages I’ve been known to write poetry about nature, have routinely made calls to action on various related themes, and posted pictures of me and my daughter 9 years ago taking part in a climate change march (the same daughter who now, aged 10, just returned from a school camp fully signed up as a pescatarian.)

So, you know, I talk a good game and encourage others to do lots (plus I now have one daughter doing her thing to contribute towards lowering the demand for meat) versus I fly 1,000s of miles every year, like a bit of air conditioning in the Saigon heat and probably, on most other climate friendly criteria, would likely score pretty poorly.

And yet, the science on climate change has been public for years now. As much as a decade ago, I remember seeing a campaign in the UK to highlight the effects of climate change on the poorest communities the world over. The strapline’s call to action being: “turn down the thermostat – it’s getting hot over here.” The accompanying picture was of a pastoralist with his herd of livestock, sweltering in the heat of an African savannah.

Wind forward to the most recent round of climate change headlines (momentarily competing on the front pages with the familiar and depressing daily churn and circus) and the news about our warming planet remains bleak.     Continue reading “Drawing Down”