Stop. #Hammocktime

I think its fair to say, it’s been a fairly full-on few weeks, both personally and professionally. Whilst the week days are naturally ruled by the green hourly markers of the outlook calendar shuttling me to this place and that place via planes, trains and automobiles (I’ve been trying to carve out some weekly thinking time lately – I’m slowly getting there, although its accurate to say that I’m still not sure I’d be able to keep up without the godsend of 1:15 on the train at the start and end of each day) recently the weekends have also felt like they have been similarly task driven, with a rhythm of cleaning, project work and general life admin and tasks becoming something of a two day mountain to level in order that one might greet the next week in a state of blank slate. Add to this that we’re thinking (only thinking) of moving house, (idly spurred on by the design-space click-bait that is Rightmove – when one has downloaded the app, its hard to escape it…) and all of a sudden all the maintenance and decorating that I should have done has sprung to the fore. Saturdays and Sundays of late have consequently and invariably been spent with some kind of brush/ roller/ screwdriver/ drill in hand as I sort out those niggles that one learns to live with/ ignore/ become oblivious to, but which would immediately catch the eye of the discerning buyer. You know you’re in deep when the staff at B&Q call out to you by name and point you to your own private parking space…

The last task on the glitch list, aside some very minor skirting board work, was the back garden. It’s a beautiful little afternoon sun-trap patio garden with raised beds and quiet trees surrounding. It’s a hushed little haven when all tidy, and we’ve planted a lot in there to delight – fox gloves, bleeding hearts, roses and a curly leafed weeping willow. As I speak there’s a rose arriving beautifully late to the party, lazily debating whether to burst or not…There’s also the soft scent of flowering raspberry and ferns to accompany a sit on the bench in the evening sun, all played against the droning backdrop of a hedge that attracts bumble bees. A garden for all senses…

As I said all of this is possible, of course, when the garden is sorted. However, due to the pace of things of late, the garden has been less than sorted. You know that scene in Predator when the crack team of soldiers realise they’re in a world of hurt and try to hack their way through impenetrable undergrowth and twisting vines? That.

And so this Saturday was spent restoring order. And at the end of it after two trips to the recycling centre, we had a garden again. But even the act of clearing and sweeping, spurred on by the tantalising promise of relaxing amongst tamed nature was somehow reward in and of itself – an intrinsically motivating act, an welcome weekend antidote to the weekday mindset.

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 I think that’s what I’m talking about here; its not necessarily the recognition that relaxation is required, but that (for me at least – others will differ) an act of relaxation comes from simply looking in another direction; deliberately, knowingly and consciously taking ones focus and mind into a different space in order to nurture the soul.

After I’d finished the garden, I set up our hammock and just swung for a while. If the luxury is afforded, I think it’s a crime to be indoors on a weekend with the weather we’ve just had in the UK. This is a rare other space for me – doing absolutely nothing does not come naturally. I’m trying to practice.

With that other mindset in mind, today (Sunday), wrapped safely in the unashamedly smug knowledge that all tasks were complete, I went off on an early morning run up into the peak district – only about 7 miles, but what a treat. I didn’t see another soul and the sun was already warm with no breeze as I hit the top of the Goyt Valley. A privilege to have such a beautiful vista all to myself.

And then friends phoned to see if I wanted to go wild swimming. We found an idyllic spot near Wildboarclough – a pool deep enough to dive into at the bottom of a waterfall – much fun was had.

And now here I am, back in the garden, full of sun and reflecting on a nourishing weekend which I know will stand me in good stead in the next week; I’m certain that looking away from the weekday foci actually increases productivity and focus in the weekday shenanigans.

So on that note, and with the evening sun on my face, I can feel the lilting swing of the hammock calling for more practice.

Stop. #hammocktime

See you next week.

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Ongoing Ambiguity

It feels like an increasingly well-worn (and possibly down right weary) statement: we’re living in times of change and instability. On almost every front – no, scrub that – on every front that I can bring immediately to mind, significant change is the norm. More than this, the rate and pace of change is accelerating. Swiftly shapeshifting and complex fluidity of position is now seen as the paradoxical constant of our times; we see it everywhere – from the unprecedented and unpredictable  #cofefe and random bursts of spectacularly illiterate and emotive semi-incoherence sputtered out in 140 characters by the Tangerine Womble in his  unhinged and fluid position as POTUS, to, in almost another context entirely, the prolific acceleration of the Internet of Things, with all the ethical complexities, dangers and possibilities that are needing to be debated and considered as this new world permeates our lives, decisions and daily routines. 

Closer to home in the UKHE sector, change and fluidity seems just as seismic; the new Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 has lines within it which promise a reshaping of the UK landscape; similarly each of the party manifestos take an approach to the HE sector which have far reaching consequences of varying natures (this entry was written on the morning train at stupid-o-clock on election day 2017). Add to this the hugely negative impact of Brexit, the insistence of the current government to keep international students within immigration number targets and then, just for giggles and the sheer delirious fun of it, add a decline in UK university applicant population through to 2022, alongside an increasing marketisation of UKHE and one is inevitably faced with a destabilising, complex conundrum of competing factors impacting upon the wellbeing of our sector.

(As an aside, I’m reminded of a one-liner from Dean Martin during one of the infamous Rat Pack Summit sessions in the early 1960’s, when the braggadocio and male drinking schtick; a dizzying tower of swooning and crooning, triumphantly placed amidst tuxedos and chevvy tailfins, was at the nexus of pop culture for old and young alike – something about holding onto the floor the next time it came round to stop himself falling off it….)

Given the landscape painted above, one might expect a pervasive feeling of doom, gloom and something approaching helplessness as we sit in the passenger seat reluctantly witnessing the speedometer spin clockwise as the proverbial cliff edge draws nearer. However, from both an institutional standpoint at the University of Salford, and (given this blog is a personal and tangential reflection on the day-to-day) as an individual, I genuinely don’t feel gloomy at all. If anything, I see huge potential and possibility here.

On an institutional level our Industry Collaboration Zones are an ideally placed answer to this continued ambiguity and shifting uncertainty. Facing off to the industries and communities with which the university partners, they are, by their nature, reflexive centres of disruptive innovation – their very constitution relies on change being not only necessary, but desirable. More than this, they position us perfectly in the region to capitalise on devolution and to answer the call from the government for universities to be the growth anchors for the industrial strategy. Is it comfortable and easy? No, definitely not – nothing worth doing is, and a desire for comfort and a slow moving stability speaks to a vision of a sector which I’m not sure really exists anymore – however much one might long for a stasis of position. One necessarily needs to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So how to do this and, moreover, do it well? How to avoid slipping into a reactive mode of being/doing, as we have to necessarily adapt and flex with this uncertainty – an uncertainty certainly due to be faced by our students as they step into this fast-paced graduate landscape of change and probably adopt portfolio, or patchwork career patterns (I’m resisting calling them career paths – I don’t think they have the luxury of being that linear…)

I think, on organisational and personal levels, its about fostering a real world resilience based on a position which is actually a meeting place for seeming contradictions – and more than this – necessarily and joyfully celebrating and inviting in this seeming contradiction – I say ‘seeming’ because I don’t actually see it as contradictory in practice.

One (an institution or a person, or an operating structure or #pickyourentityofchoice) must have certainty of purpose; a sense of grounded Heideggerian being-in-the-world, whilst having the agility and tenacity to embrace change (internal and external) as a creative working dynamic, bending with the wind so to speak. I’m again reminded of the absorption I find in surfing – it’s a similar position of tension – one has the certainty of needing to ride the wave, but where one goes on the wave and what happens in the 150 yards between the wave and the shoreline is, for me, an ambiguous mixture of response and desire – a fluctuating conversation between me, my board and the water. I can’t be fixed there – that would destroy the ride. Similarly, to give oneself over completely is an exercise in futility – at that point one becomes a passive passenger – no fun at all.

So I think resilience and a means of meeting this world and its challenges comes, in part, from resolutely adopting an uncomfortable, shifting celebration of necessary, responsible, accountable agility and a certain amount of ambiguity, perhaps drawing a soft parallel to Emilyn Claid’s idea of ambiguity seen in Yes, No, Maybe. More than a threshold resilience – a coping and surviving- I think dogged consistency in this modus operandi offers the possibility of thriving. And for those of you who are up for more – here’s a really interesting little article on excelling in this vein, taken from a psychological standpoint.

See you next week.