Part II … continued from yesterday.
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Hi David,

Thanks again for the good questions — I’ve had some good time chewing them over in the garden when breaking from work. Let me show your comments highlighted, so it’s easy to see my responses…

It’s crucial because I am writing to you as an imagined person; a person who seems to have had a particular group of formative experiences; a person whose formative experiences echo my own, and, I reckon, some of Talia’s. For example, in contrast to Justin Keller’s recent demonisation of the destitute, victimised and feckless, I reckon you have lived around enough hard luck cases to understand their struggles. Not because you lived in a homeless shelter, but because once you got out of it you maintained some sort of appreciation for others in difficult situations. That capacity for compassion and a grounded appreciation of each person on his or her own terms is something I mostly see among people who’ve lived rough, or who’ve worked in that environment. Am I right in thinking that? Is the train of thought reasonably accurate?

This is very true — we’re all imagining people here and missing the truths. Most of the responders her don’t know Talia, apart from her close friends and family. All the advice hurled, given or gently dropped for her, including mine, is doomed in some way because we don’t know enough about her.

That doesn’t stop people pigeonholing, displaying bigotry or grouping people with names that simultaneously makes it easier to hate whilst somehow extending this to another group of imaginary people, who we’ve given a collective noun to.

Snowflakes. Feckless Millenials. Youngsters. Self Entitled Whiners. Just reminds me of the lazy and bigoted thinkings of signs that would say “Rooms to let. No Niggers, No Irish, No Dogs”.

I guess some of my compassion, as you surmised, came from living in a rough environment but that’s not the whole story. My grandfather taught me a great deal too and whilst I lived in the chaotic home environment of an abusive alcoholic parent, this also gave me some insight and skills around banding together with my siblings.

I guess your train of thought is reasonably accurate but it’s more complicated than that (laughs).

My grandfather was a Scottish Presbyterian most of his life (sounds doom laden but it’s actually a modern and liberal church) and converted to Buddhism much later in life. He was for long periods a volunteer for teaching gardening skills, beekeeping and carpentry to prisoners from the local nick a few miles up the road.

The prisoners came from many different social classes and ranged from white collar criminals to murderers. Yet he gave them his time, hospitality, skills and advice — without judgement or rancour. I think he changed many of their lives and in doing this without asking for it to be noticed, I learnt something valuable from him.

And the buddhism? As a beekeeper, he taught me as a boy to recognise when a bee was exhausted. You might find one on a pavement, stuck inside your house or on the window of the pub you’re drinking beer at. He showed me how to give this exhausted bee a small drink of sugar syrup on a teaspoon — and then watch as it made a miraculous recovery. A little miracle every time.

Fast forward a bit to the notion of mentoring, or, in your words, developing a relationship with an employer. But think also of the possible employers who wouldn’t give you a look in, or the ones who hire you but then abandon any pretense of caring, to the extent that the top of the food chain has no clue about conditions at the bottom.

This is a really gnarly topic — one worth more of a discussion. Why is is that some company cultures can be great for employees and others toxic? What economic, political or legislative drivers have caused this? Why are we doing this stuff to people?

There is one company that EVERYONE should look at here and it is the John Lewis Partnership here in the UK. It’s one of the biggest and most successful retailers in the country. The customer experience is superb and guess what — the company is owned by all the employees.

These guys share all profits with employees as a fixed percentage of their salary. There is a salary ratio cap between the highest and lowest paid in the company. Food, social activities, clubs, holidays, excellent working conditions, participative and collaborative management yet also successful in fast-paced retail?

You can have your cake and eat it. When I worked there, I visited some of the country estates the partnership owns, which are there for the relaxation and enjoyment of their employees. I stayed in a lovely house with oak panelling, ancient rooms and extensive grounds near the Thames and yet it cost about a 10th of what a hotel would charge! And it’s not just reserved for the senior staff either!

This is just one small example that shows they realise that letting anyone from the checkout to the boardroom share and appreciate these benefits, they look after the company as a collective, an uber cooperative.

Something’s broken there, and I’m thinking you’d have some insight about fixing it. My own notion is that like John Bird and the Big Issue, someone ought to be finding ways to mentor those of us whose career modelling skills are no better than Talia’s. Okay, let me be a bit more proactive here: I can try to invent a mentoring programme based on my understanding of what it’s like to be at the bottom, but I’ve got the ear of exactly zero people. I am not Martha Lane Fox. I am not John Bird. Those people are not me.

I’ll have to think about that one — because I don’t think I really appreciate or understand the problem. Easy to give advice when you don’t understand the problem from many different angles.

I agree with you though — perhaps there is a role for someone to offer genuine advice from other people. I’d love to set up an information exchange like this but I have no concrete ideas yet. I do think we need some form of social network for seniors (the elderly) that helps us look after them better (another post, another day).

I am not Martha Lane Fox either, although she did once offer me the job of CTO at her company. I turned it down, because I was happier at John Lewis and realised I’d probably have a better quality of life sticking there <grin>.

I don’t have the ear of many people but I know lots of people who might. If some ideas at least surface from all this communication, then it’s a good thing it happened.

So think back to the hostel, and how people in that kind of bind managed to break out of some mental or situational rut. Don’t include yourself in that query, because unlike Talia, you had the right kind of nous to do something effective once you’d landed a lucky break. You’ve made it clear that you were capable of applying yourself in ways that moved you forward.
In thinking that Talia can do that too, you’re making the mistake of thinking any of us is as capable as any other. That’s the mistake virtually every negative commentator has made in relation to Talia and her options. But your lived experience tells you otherwise, right? If I’ve read you correctly, you’ll know how different people struggle with diffferent things. You know there’s no point telling Talia to knuckle down and get on with it; that you can’t push the river.

This was the thing that made me stop dead. Then think. Then think some more. A little voice said to me “Wait a minute, you’re just a liberal middle class white boy — what the f*** do you know eh?”.

I could just explain my response here, but let’s paint the numbers a little and use the hostel to give you a picture. What kinds of people were in the hostel?

I can’t be precise but let’s try:

  • Alcoholics & Drug addicts
  • People with mild to severe mental illnesses
  • People who had become disconnected or lost from family
  • Young people (either out of care, previously homeless or vulnerable — in one or more of the other categories)
  • Very elderly (in one of the other categories or just stuck)
  • People employed in transitory/marginal jobs — pubs, kitchens, portering (possibly in one other category too)
  • 2–3 Families (usually with one member in one of the other categories)

PLUS

  • 1 x old guy with Tourette’s (in a whole category of his own)
  • 1 x stoner who wore dark glasses all the time, even inside

Compared to these other guys, I was in a class of my own right? I had a very good education in Scotland, did well in my exams, had the economic advantage of middle class parents who were reasonably well off. I had good core communication skills, could hustle and a decent ability to learn. I had advantages.

But there the judgement stops, because the story is all wrong. I was a homeless young alcoholic — and the drinking was just one of my disadvantages. I couldn’t ‘just go home’ — which is why I found myself homeless in the first place.

I had difficulty holding down a day, never mind a job — and whilst I’m much calmer now, my fractured home life had not left me in good shape to cope with life outside the only environment I knew.

So as much as I had advantages (white, middle class, well educated) I also had disadvantages (problems with authority, alcoholism, violence, relationships). And that made me no less, no more, no different, no better, just someone else at the hostel, with problems. Lots of them.

You’ve made it clear that you were capable of applying yourself in ways that moved you forward.
In thinking that Talia can do that too, you’re making the mistake of thinking any of us is as capable as any other. That’s the mistake virtually every negative commentator has made in relation to Talia and her options.

I guess some determination or will eventually helped me but yes, this is the mistake everyone is making.

At the hostel — people either wanted to be there or didn’t want to be there. You will find homeless people who will say this to you too. Don’t preach about this until you’re stuck in some part of your life that feels like a waiting room — then you’ll get it. Some of them were capable of transcending that environment yet chose not to. Some of them had too many disadvantages that without help or intervention, they would never leave (sometimes never). Some of them were just ‘on their way through’ or just ‘kidding themselves they were on their way through’. Some of them wanted out and could do it — like me.

This is why talking about ‘The Homeless’ or ‘The Millenials’ or ‘The Feckless Youth’ is just lazy and approximate thinking — imagine meeting a group of 100,000 homeless people. What would they all be like? Pretty scary in a large group but all different, like at a rock concert.

People are People and either will or will not get their shit sorted out despite what you/god/your mum/your dog wants that person to do.

When I gave up drinking, I read a lot of books by Lawrence Block, whose hero protagonist is Matt Scudder. I saw Matt go through struggles with drinking and eventually get free of his addiction so he remains a favourite crime fiction author of mine.

In one scene, a pal says “I really wish things had worked out with me and Stella” and Matt says “They did work out. Just not the way you wanted them to, that’s all.”

There is what we want people to do and what actually happens.

Sure, you could have asked me to stop drinking, thrown me in a boot camp, whipped me, taken me to therapy and none of it would have worked. It only worked once I had decided I didn’t want to do it any more. And I can see that in others — that forcing it is not always the right way. Listening, asking good questions and responding is better.

But I bet Talia’s a smart cookie, and that there are plenty of things she can do. So here’s the question: with her shite modelling skills, what’s the best option open to her? She sees no visible path, let alone an easy one. So I say mentoring has something to do with it. Having someone with a bit of perspective take her in and work with whatever it is she’s got, whoever she is.

She doesn’t sound disadvantaged — at least in terms of skills to be able to get hired for a job role like that. Anything else — I just don’t know anything about her. What does she want to do? What’s her passion? Which bits of the work does she like? Does she want to do social media work? Does she hang with the local hells angel chapter? Does she set small fires in the waste baskets? Who knows…

I don’t know answers to any of these but I agree with you, we can all do with mentors of all different kinds in our lives. My guess is she’s probably forged new friendships from all these messages and I’m sure that will lead to some new work.

So we never know what other factors are in play. We rarely know enough about the person or their story. So we say ‘Talia’ or ‘Millenials’ or ‘Collective Noung’ — but all of this misses the most vital bit — does she have advantages or disadvantages? Do we know?

All we can say with certainty is this — More than some people. Less than others.

Do you really think that you get luckier the harder you work? Or is that only true for you? Is it largely a fiction promoted by all the desperational types hyping ways of landing that ultra-smooth career?

Yes I do — as long as there aren’t intrinsic or extrinsic factors that are holding you back (and that’s a complicated question to answer).

It’s an easy thing to say if you’re just doling out shitty superficial little lifehack ditties,but I meant something deeper. I do think if you work hard and if you study and learn over time, this will combine with making yourself helpful to other people. This combination is vital.

As with my hostel explanation, some won’t ever make it how ever hard they’re working — it’s either something in them, something that’s been done to them or a situation they’ve caused (or has been dropped on them) — the outcome is the same.

My point doesn’t ring true for when those factors are in extremis (either those as a society we’ve caused or they as an individual have contributed). And it also supposes that people ‘want’ to do what you feel is best for them, which is part of the whole problem of solving this anyway.

In Talia’s San Francisco, with the scorched-earth approach to human capital, do you suppose that this trickle-down theory of aspiration is really credible? Or is the mantra of making your own luck just another bit of smoke and mirrors?

I guess it’s always about the intent of the person saying it. If it’s meant as an approximation or just a patronising comment, then it isn’t really credible.

I do think that humans see things they ascribe to being ‘luck’ that actually come from things they’ve just done themselves. Being noticed is a lot about volunteering for shit jobs, doing hard work without complaint (or whining for affirmation), knuckling down with others to get something done and supporting other people who are struggling.

I don’t think we can make everyone lucky that works hard but we can give a chance for everyone who has that potential, to go as far as they can and share in the benefits.

This trickle down shit doesn’t work, unless you’re the one with the mouth near the tap. John Lewis knew this, when he set up the Partnership nearly a hundred years ago.

Forget startups — they haven’t been figuring out this stuff for long — we’ve been doing it here in the UK for nearly a hundred years at John Lewis.

Not a bad place to start looking for a solution:

http://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/about/our-founder.html

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