Tag Archives: luck

Not keeping up appearances

One of the consequences of doing anything well, is that it tends to look effortless. If you’re doing something professionally, it is of course desirable to look as good as you can while doing it. Success is attractive. Relaxed capability is attractive. You want people looking at the elegant swan you’ve put into the world, not all the frantic paddling below the surface required to keep it there.

The problem with this – and I see it a lot – is that a significant number of people will assume it is indeed, effortless for you to do what you do. If they can’t see how much time and effort went into getting you to the point whereby it is indeed easy, they’ll use words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ and maybe ‘lucky’. This can have consequences. It can leave other people assuming that they should be that good for no effort. Or they may assume that because they aren’t instantly that good, there’s no point even trying. Neither idea is useful.

The general wisdom is that to master something takes 10,000 hours of work. The effortless performance, the relaxed artistic flourish…  are possible because of the many hours of study and practice underpinning them. There’s also a lot of planning in the mix. Films have a nasty habit of showing us creators producing amazing work in a single frenzied round. Most of us don’t work that way. Paintings are planned and sketched for. Stories and pieces of music are built up in stages. And so on.

The same is often true of other things. Cooking. Gardening. Self employment. The effortless coasting towards success is often just a superficial appearance. People who get results usually have to work for them. If they can do it easily now, it’s because they already put in the work. Right now, Tom and I are starting to enjoy the benefits of the Hopeless Maine project – in terms of money, recognition, opportunities and whatnot. We’ve worked together on this for about a decade, Tom’s been on it longer. As one if my publishers used to say ‘it takes years of work to become an overnight success.’

We like the stories of people who come out of nowhere to achieve wild, unexpected success. We don’t tell stories about years of quietly chipping away at it, slowly building a following, and having modest success, but that’s often how it goes. We also don’t tell stories about people being able to invest in their own projects because their families support them and cover their bills, help them make time and give them space. It’s easier to be creative if you’ve already got money – are retired, or have a supportive spouse. This kind of information tends to vanish from the story of how the successful individual got to where they are.

It’s always tempting to create stories that make us look as good as possible. However, I think it’s ultimately harmful to create the impression of great talent welling up to achieve great things, and not mentioning the levels of work and dedication required. I also think its problematic to let people  assume you’re making it as a creator when you aren’t.

At the moment, my household is getting by on the money I make as a book publicist. We get top-ups from the creative side, which is always cheering. It looks feasible that in the next few years, the Hopeless Maine project will start laying golden eggs for us. This is because we’ve made a choice to invest time in the creative stuff rather than Tom mostly working for other people. If we make this work, it will be because of the massive amount of time he’s invested, and because I’ve been able to pay the bills. I intend to keep talking about this because there are myths I want to dispel.

The challenge of Jack Monroe

For those of you outside the UK, Jack Monroe is a single mum who has given a face and voice to UK poverty. She is also completely at odds with right wing myths about the poor, which makes her very important indeed.

Jack is a blogger, and you can find her here – http://agirlcalledjack.com/ she has a book, and does things with Sainsburys and talks at Green Party conferences, and these days probably doesn’t go hungry any more. But she’s been to the bottom, and she knows what it’s like to have nothing but debt.

The right wing story about poverty, is that the poor are feckless. The poor are poor because we are lazy, ignorant, work-shy. When we have money we blow it on drugs, fags, alcohol and tattoos. We have no pride, and no work ethic, but delight in fleecing the system and getting something for nothing. With a story like that, it’s very easy to justify not giving money to the poor. We’d only waste it. So easy to say there is no point even trying to help us because we are too stupid and lazy to help ourselves.

Jack’s story paints a very different picture. She was unlucky. It really is that simple. She didn’t make especially bad decisions or irresponsible choices. She didn’t get herself pregnant (think about that for a moment) to get housing. Things went wrong for her and she got into a lot of trouble and for a while her life was hell. Because she is also strong, brave and determined, she turned her life around thanks to a bit of help in the form of food bank aid, amongst other things. She got lucky, off the back of her hard work (you need both, usually), her blog became a book and her story brought her work and a new start.

It’s not a unique story. There’s another famous one, the lone single mum, unable to afford to heat her house, writing in cafes, who went on to become a legendary author and one of the richest people in the UK for a while.

Most people who fall on hard times are simply unlucky. Most people who get the breaks Jack Monroe and JK Rowling did are just plain lucky. The vast majority of people who get into trouble are trying not to be, until or unless they succumb to despair. Most people want a decent quality of life, and some dignity.

Anyone can fall. No one is so secure that a run of bad luck could not put them in the gutter. Whether you get to stay in the gutter, depends a lot on how able you are to get up, and that in turn depends to a degree on whether you get any help. If you write people off as useless, the odds of them staying down are really good. What Jack Monroe and JK Rowling demonstrate to the world is that if you take care of the people who fall on hard times, they can pick themselves up, and amazing things happen.

We can choose to punish the poor because there are a few people who abuse the system, or we can choose to support the poor because there are some people who go through hell and come back to do amazing, powerful things that have huge benefits for us all. It probably comes down to whether you enjoy punishing people, or you enjoy giving people a chance to thrive, and the current culture in the UK seems to take far too much pleasure in the suffering of others. There’s little to be proud of in kicking people who are already down, but all too often, that’s exactly what happens.

Gratitude and fortune

I am lucky. When my life fell apart I had enough inherited cash that I did not have to seek social housing. I can earn some money, even though I’ve been ill, and thanks to self-employment have been able to stay out of sickness related benefits. I do get some help from the government – you can get support alongside quite decent incomes, if you have children. But on the whole, I’m not as dependent on the system as many people are, and that’s pure, blind luck.

It was sheer luck that the bad choices in my history did not leave me in a mental health hospital, or out on the streets. It was pure chance that set me up in life with a decent genetic intelligence and some good teachers. Not everyone gets that. I’ve been able to roll with changes and challenges, survive setbacks and find ways round problems because I am fortunate enough to be passably bright and pretty well educated. Not everyone gets those breaks.

It’s all too easy to look at the successes in our lives, and put those down to how good we are. We deserve our winnings, our paychecks, our comfy homes, good health. Of course we want to believe that because it gives us an illusion of control. If we made it and earned it, then we ought to be able to keep it. This is just an illusion. Bad luck, an accident, a folding company, ill health, a run on your bank, a tree root undermining your house. The lucky amongst us are seldom more than a couple of missing payments away from total disaster. Should that happen, much depends on how lucky we are in our friends and family, and how much support we get.

Blaming those who get into trouble is a way of reassuring ourselves that it won’t happen to us. We’re too smart. We work too hard. We’re too together to have a mental health problem. We jog, so we aren’t going to get sick. No matter how hard you try, one mistake with a car can take all of that way from you in a space of minutes. We want the people at the bottom to be lazy scroungers, so that we don’t have to be afraid of that happening to us. Well, we should be afraid, and we should see our illusions of security for what they really are. Bad luck strikes randomly, and does not pay much attention to how clever, hard working or health conscious you are. There’s only so much you can ward off by doing the right things, and only so far a clever mind will carry you. I’ve seen it happen to plenty of people. There are lots of folk on narrowboats who got here because they were too smart to entirely go under. Businesses ruined by supermarkets. Lives ruined by violence and abuse. People plagued by ill health, or who lost everything in a messy divorce. But people who had enough left and enough imagination to take up boating, and survive. Not everyone has the inner strength to keep getting up when they’ve been knocked down more times than they can count.

Some of what pushes people to the bottom of the pile is not pure bad luck. It’s deliberate abuse by others. Unlucky to get a dose of that, but not wholly accidental. Robbed, raped, beaten, bullied, intimidated, forced out, mistreated, conned… there but for the grace of… go any of us. These things destroy mental health, destroy financial success, demolish lives. If we’ve avoided one of those disasters, it may not be because we’re too smart, it may just be we were lucky. Sometimes people fall because they are ignorant, or naïve, or gullible, or too willing to forgive, or not mean enough to take advantage of others. Are these things we really think others should be punished for?

If we recognise that luck, it’s a lot easier to stop assuming the poor are at the bottom of the heap because they can’t be bothered to arrange anything better. It’s easier to find some compassion, and not to judge everyone without knowing any of their details. As the job market dwindles, more and more people are pushed, wholly against their will, into poverty and dependence. People who want to work if they could, who would gladly take on anything. Why burden them further by stigmatising them for things beyond their control? So that we can hang on to the belief that we deserve what we have and it won’t be taken away. And because it suits the government as they take yet more money out of the welfare system.

When it is taken away, when you find life spiralling out of control, and you desperately need help and someone to pick up the pieces, there’s much to be said for finding yourself in a kind and compassionate system. Because the alternative is to believe that you deserved the fall as well, that it represents a failure to work hard enough or be good enough. You are a failure, then. Or the alternative is no safety net, and destitution, and no second chances.

Picture yourself (if you’ve not been here) suddenly out of a job, and unable to pay the bills, with the mortgage company threatening to take the house, and your relationship falling apart under the strain, and the anxiety making you feel so sick you can’t get out of bed in the morning, and crying for no reason sometimes and wanting to die. Picture yourself there, and then ask how helpful you’d find it to have the government treating you like a lazy scrounger who is destroying the economy.

We’re long overdue a culture shift on this one.

A hungry world

I heard a story yesterday about a girl collapsing in school, because it had been so long since she’d last eaten. In some parts of the world, the curious bits would be that a poor child was in school in the first place, and a girl-child at that. Hunger and deprivation are normal for so many people. But this wasn’t a developing world story, it came from a few miles down the road, from the green and pleasant heart of England, where that sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen anymore.

In this country of wealth and plenty, no child should have to go hungry to the point of collapse. Our government should hang its collective heads in shame that they have allowed such a situation to exist. Food banks are on the increase, as are the numbers of people who desperately need access to them. Where people are already in debt, living hand to mouth, one wage packet to the next, the loss of work can plunge a household into total crisis at no notice. This is happening. Where benefits are cut, support with housing harder to come by, budgets that would not make ends meet now cannot be stretched. What do you give up? The mobile phone that enables you to be contacted if a job comes in? Heating? The cost of fuel has been on the rise for some time. Maybe you give up the car that you depended on for shopping and that actually made you more employable. We have a structure that pretty much demands you have certain things, and increasing numbers of people who cannot afford them.

And yet in some households, perfectly good food is thrown away all the time.

I stood in a queue today and listened to an obscenely spoilt brat howling with dismay that he was being made to stand up, and was not allowed to sit in the car. From the fuss he was making, you’d think someone had told him he wasn’t going to have anything to eat that week.

It’s the perspectives that really gets me, the comfortably off who denigrate the poor and assume that poverty is proof of not working hard enough, for one. The line between viable, and unviable is thin, and seldom visible. There but for the grace of the gods, goes any of us. One big car bill you can’t pay that leads to debt, and never being able to quite get ahead again. Or that classic of a sudden health disaster that takes job, income, dignity and hope in one fell swoop.

Any one of us could wake up tomorrow and find that some personal disaster, beyond our control, has thrown us into a state of destitution. And it happens every day, to a frighteningly large number of people.

We’re so quick to blame those less fortunate than ourselves, and so quick to assume that some inherent quality in us is keeping us in better fortune. Not luck. Not pure, blind, irrational chance. I think luck has everything to do with it. I’m lucky. I can afford to feed my child. Another woman in Gloucester, could not. If only we had a culture in which failure to look after the weakest was a source of shame, not pride. If only we could collectively stop looking for reasons to blame, and put that bit of effort into finding ways to help. If only we cared enough to notice.

I’m in a fairly affluent area, there are no hungry children on my doorstep, as far as I know. I like to think I’d have a clue if there were, and I know that if I knew, I could not stand by and do nothing.

What do Druids do on Friday the 13th?

Last time this date came around, someone landed on my blog by googling just this question. I doubt they found much to help them, but, recognising that someone wanted an answer, I thought today would be a good time to wheel one out.

The short take would be: Nothing different. (For most of us)

There are important reasons for this though, and they merit exploring. Firstly, the Friday the thirteenth superstition I believe to be Christian in origin, having to do with Judas being the 13th (Jesus plus 11 nice guys) Good Friday being the day of crucifixion, and another strand to do with the persecution, torture and execution of the Knights Templar. I will happily admit to being hazy about all of this – it’s not my tradition, it’s not part of my sense of how the world works so I feel entirely comfortable knowing very little.

The thing is, that Friday the 13th is one of those many, many things that exists only because humans have all agreed to believe it does. As a Druid, I am more interested by what happens in nature, and by things that are discernibly real. If humans were all wiped out tomorrow, there would still be day and night. There would still be seasons, equinoxes, solstices, there would be full moons and dark moons. None of that depends on our noticing it.

Weeks do not exist without people. They are an arbitrary system for dividing up time into manageable units. They may be very old, but if we went, they would cease to exist. So, the idea that one day of the week could be more or less lucky than others, only works if you believe that arbitrary human systems are magically meaningful. I don’t.

Months have a loose relationship with the real cycle of the moon, but it’s too loose to be helpful. Again, these are human ways of cutting up the year into useful sections that help us keep track of what we are doing and manage our relationship with time and the seasons. Months are not real in any sense that they would exist without us either. Therefore the day of the month is just another human construct, signifying little. And if you’re a pagan, and you know that the coven is supposed to have 13 in it, you might not think of 13 as an unlucky number at all, but as a pagan-friendly sort of number.

Years are human inventions too – at least, the dating of years. We count from the year when a chap might or might not have been born in Bethlehem, and we stick with it because it’s what we’ve got. Without humanity, this would not be 2012, it would just be another journey of the earth around the sun.

So, I am taking no more precaution against ill fortune today than I would on any other day. I am not anticipating any more trouble than usual, and based on observation to date, the ebb and flow of fortune in my life has nothing to do with calendar dates. I don’t know enough astrology to know if the movement of planets has ever had any relevance to what’s happening to me. Generally, what is going on keeps me busy enough. My personal belief is that shit happens. Sometimes we bring it upon ourselves. Often we make our own luck. Just occasionally it feels like there are other hands pulling the strings.

Looking forward to hearing everyone else’s take now….