Thinking Out Loud No. 17
On Brexit, identity and climate change, building extraordinary tribes and Superman
Welcome to February! I hope it treats you well. This week I talk about:
leaving the European Union and what it means for my identity (and climate change)
my experience with ‘extraordinary tribes’ and how to build them, and
an Alexander Technique masterclass from Christopher Reeve
I’ve also been finding further clarity in my ‘life purpose’, for want of a better term, which is what all this writing is about. I have found myself increasingly drawn to encapsulating it as ‘exploring positive narratives for societal and personal transformation.’ Things are beginning to come together!
I hope you enjoy.
The UK has left the European Union
From the day I was born around 32 years ago until 11pm (UK time) on Friday 31 January 2020, I was a citizen of the European Union. Now I am not.
I don't want to rehash the Brexit discourse from the last three and a half years – what's done is done. But there are some personal reflections that I need to share.
I have always considered myself to be European. I am half English, half Hungarian (sziasztok) and hold a British passport. I grew up speaking English and Hungarian at home and learned French and German at school. The majority of my close relationships are with Europeans living in London: Hungarian, French, Italian, Macedonian, German. I have enjoyed unrestricted travel across Europe and, even though I never did it, the idea that I could live and work anywhere gave me a sense of freedom.
This weekend I have been sitting with an ambiguous sense of loss. I'm mourning something, but I'm struggling to articulate exactly what it is. Even though I'm no longer a part of that political union, I'm still European. Geography hasn't changed, my other identities are still valid, all my relationships remain.
I think I've identified a couple of factors that are making me feel this way.
The first is the way I've seen my country torn apart. Or, perhaps more accurately, how Brexit has revealed and exacerbated deep divisions already present. Perhaps there's an analogue here with romantic infidelity: the hardest part is having to rewrite personal history. What I thought was true actually wasn't. Am I mourning the loss of the country I thought I was living in?
The second is that this is happening against my will. I voted to remain in the 2016 referendum. I have attended protests in London and given money to groups lobbying for a second referendum. While I have felt largely powerless and disenfranchised most of the time, my support has been firmly with the side that lost. Am I a sore loser?
The third is around my confidence for the future, particularly around issues that matter deeply to me, like climate change . We are moving into increasingly difficult times and I believe that cooperation is vital in getting through them. My perspective here is one I share with the father in Aesop's fable of The Bundle Of Sticks:
A certain Father had a family of Sons, who were forever quarrelling among themselves. No words he could say did the least good, so he cast about in his mind for some very striking example that should make them see that discord would lead them to misfortune.
One day when the quarrelling had been much more violent than usual and each of the Sons was moping in a surly manner, he asked one of them to bring him a bundle of sticks. Then handing the bundle to each of his Sons in turn he told them to try to break it. But although each one tried his best, none was able to do so.
The Father then untied the bundle and gave the sticks to his Sons to break one by one. This they did very easily.
"My Sons," said the Father, "do you not see how certain it is that if you agree with each other and help each other, it will be impossible for your enemies to injure you? But if you are divided among yourselves, you will be no stronger than a single stick in that bundle."
In unity is strength.
Despite what feels like a setback on the unity front, I have found solace in the words of Jean-Marc Jancovici, a French thought leader in the energy transition. In a post on LinkedIn (original source in French) he highlights all the ways the UK has been a climate leader:
We have dramatically decarbonised our electricity system and almost entirely phased out coal power (and I am very proud of the recent role I played designing innovation projects for National Grid ESO, the UK's electricity transmission system operator, to help enable a zero carbon grid by 2025).
We explored the economics of climate change in The Stern Review back in 2006, which outlined the strong economic case for climate action and helped bring mitigation of climate change into mainstream political discourse.
We were the first country to enshrine national decarbonisation targets in primary legislation with a target of 80% decarbonisation by 2050, since been upgraded to 'net zero' carbon emissions.
We invest significantly in climate research within our world-leading academic institutions.
While the UK may be embarking on a new journey, one less closely integrated with our closest neighbours, I hold out hope that we will continue to be a force for good in the mission to reverse climate change.
So I'll continue exploring my feelings of loss as I strengthen my relationships and continue my work. There are still many people to be loved and much work to be done. That hasn’t changed.
Building extraordinary tribes
Towards the end of 2018 I trained as a Co-Active Coach. I went into it wanting two things: to gain coaching skills and to go through the personal transformation that comes with that kind of experience.
I got both of those things, but I also got something I didn't expect: I became part of an extraordinary tribe (as we call ourselves). The group I trained – with the most wonderful, kind, courageous, empathetic and vulnerable people I know – has become a nurturing community.
We met up yesterday in London for a full day of reconnection, practicing our coaching skills and kindling the energy that binds us together. I'm convinced that these people will be friends for life.
I'm interested in how these kinds of deep connections are formed.
As all adults know, forming new relationships seems to get harder with age. Perhaps we get busy, or maybe we become more rigid in our routines and identities. The Co-Active training, like my Alexander Technique teacher training (which has had similar tribe-forming effects) offers some clues as to how to overcome this.
First, you need a structure where regular and repeated interactions are allowed. "We will all meet in this place at this time on these dates."
Second, you need a common purpose to connect around. This could be a shared interest to explore or learn. "We all want to learn more about coaching."
Finally, and most importantly, you need a safe environment that encourages vulnerability, playfulness and growth. You can get together regularly to chat about email marketing techniques, but that probably won't create the deep connection that our extraordinary tribe has in spades. Instead, you need the shared experience of going to deep places, going there, and leaning on the support of the group. "None of us really know what we're doing here and we're learning at the edge of our capacity."
I'm fascinated by how we can design structures, spaces and experiences that facilitate this kind of connection and I plan to explore it more. One thing that particularly excites me is that I'm seeing it happen on Twitter, between people who are often anonymous and have never met. But I think all of the above can apply to Twitter as well: repeated interactions, connecting around shared interests and, at least in my circles, nurturing and supporting communities. This gives me a lot of hope for the future on online community building.
Media of the week
I came across an incredible clip of Christopher Reeve playing Clark Kent and Superman. In it you can see Reeve rapidly switching his character back and forth between Clark and Superman. It's easy to mock the idea that just putting glasses on is a convincing disguise, but this clip really highlights how there's so much more going on.
It's not just his voice. It's not just his posture. He changes his entire energy, his awareness, embodying Clark and then embodying Superman. It's an absolute masterclass.
The way he does this reminded me of what I've experienced while training in and teaching Alexander Technique and, sure enough, Reeve was well-versed in Alexander Technique. As you watch the clip, notice how Reeve is adding 'doing' to create Clark. He's shrinking his awareness and making his entire self, not just his body, smaller.
And then, to become Superman, he doesn't make any effort to ‘improve’ his posture, he just stops doing all the things that define Clark and floats up effortlessly to become Superman. Here we see Superman being defined as the absence of effort. All that's left is a natural, elegant and confident poise. I love it.
P.S. If you enjoyed this newsletter and think someone else might too then please feel encouraged to forward it on. And if you were sent this email by someone else, then welcome! You can subscribe here or check out my latest blog posts.