Category Archives: Life Challenges

Sober for October


I’m fundraising again, this time for Macmillan Cancer Support. My challenge is to get through the 31 days of October without having any alcohol, and I’m very confident I can do it. Last year I managed 31 days without caffeine which I think was much harder. 

I know that a lot of people are doing a lot of fundraising, but I hope you can find a couple of pounds to spare to sponsor me too. Just go to https://www.gosober.org.uk/users/steve-mair and give a little, please. 

Thank you in advance, you’re helping change the world. 

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Shame on who?


Earlier this week I finished reading Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It was a really fascinating read, which traced public shaming back a couple of centuries to the use of floggings and pillories, then quickly brought it right up to date with a number of cases, some of which I’d heard of and some I hadn’t.

I’ve not exeperienced anything like the “sport” which some people seem to enjoy, but I have been on the receiving end of some unpleasant comments / posts online recently. Nothing that’s upset me and certainly nothing that would be called shaming, but there was an amount of personal invective involved.

Dee and I have both had reason to ask people recently why they are being so nasty, so unkind, or to ask for evidence to back up statements they’ve made – some of which have been quite appalling.  We’ve had a lot of unpleasantness directed at us as a result. We’ve also started reporting racist, bigoted, homophobic and other abusive comments / behaviour to the organisations that run the sites where we’ve seen comments, because we’ve decided that standing by and doing nothing is no longer an option.

The press here in the UK seem to have developed a version of this over the last 20 years or so, where they build someone up and up, saying how great they are, then seem to take delight in tearing them to bits in a matter of hours and days.  In my opinion it’s part of the same problem.

The point I was going to make, and which Ronson makes very well, is that the internet affords a certain amount of anonymity and freedom for most people, and it seems that more and more are using it to collude with each other – not necessarily overtly, but tacitly, by joining in – to “have a go” at some unfortunate individual. Even those who try to question the facts or in some way protect the victim often find themselves the target of these trolls.

It seems to me that this is all a disturbing trend. It’s bullying, plain and simple, yet I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who join in would never think of themselves as bullies. It’s also apparent that a lot of people are unwilling / unable to admit when their words or actions are not appropriate, and abrogate their responsibilities as a person. It seems that they would much rather turn their wrath on you than to say “Actually, you have a point, my behaviour was out of order. I’m sorry.” Don’t get mad, get even seems to be the order of the day, but it’s really unhelpful.

My question for you is, what action do you take if you see an online “attack” on an individual?  Do you ignore it (which means you tacitly approve of it), do you join in (which means you actually approve of it) or do you tackle it? In my opinion, only by doing the third option can we make the world a better place, once person at a time.

And a second question: how do you react if someone calls you out on your behaviour? Are you kind? Are you honest? Are you helpful?  Do you hold your hands up and apologise, or do you go on the attack?

Be less judgmental and be more compassionate


It seems to me that there’s been an increase in vitriol and hatred around the world, from the US / North Korea posturing, to the far right protesters in the US, to comments closer to home on Facebook.

I live on a relatively new estate, and at the moment it seems blighted by vandals and antisocial behaviour. Just this weekend, different people have reported, via Facebook:

  • capturing some youngsters (12 or 13 year olds) on CCTV after midnight deliberately breaking trees in their front garden
  • that their brand new home has been vandalised a matter of weeks before they were due to move in
  • that the lights outside their house were stolen and smashed further up the street
  • finding a dirty nappy (diaper) in their garden, apparently thrown there by the toddler next door

The first three are criminal acts, but the last one was probably an accident as the toddler may not have known what the impact of they were doing was.

In all these cases, the comments left by others on the estate have been abhorrent, from suggesting that the youngsters have their legs broken to pushing the contents of the nappy back through the neighbour’s letterbox. Just think about it. Suggesting that children are deliberately crippled for an act of vandalism.  Pushing excrement through a letter box because of something that was an accident, rather than talking to the parents. Really? What is wrong with these people?

As inflammatory comments were left following each report on Facebook, people seemed to be feeding off each other, off the negative energy. With the first incident, I asked if anyone had notified the police and / or got social services involved, but that was met with stony silence. More vitriolic comments followed, but to my knowledge the authorities were not contacted. Instead, the community just got more incensed, conveniently ignoring my suggestion.

We don’t know what circumstances have led to children of that age being out after midnight without their parents. We don’t know what drove someone to vandalise a nearly new house, or to take someone’s property and break it. Maybe it was boredom, maybe it was seen as “fun”, maybe there was a long standing connection between the perpetrators and the victims. The point is, until you know WHY something happened, how can you comment constructively or with any kind of reasoning? To comment without knowing the full facts from all sides makes no sense. It leads to people being judgmental based on their own biases and perceptions. That can’t be right, it can’t be helpful and it can’t be healthy for anyone involved.

Yes the vandalism and other acts should not be tolerated, but the best way to deal with them is to provide evidence to the police and let them sort it out, bringing in other agencies like social services if necessary. Mob rule and vigilante justice is just not on. We as a community should be better than that. We as humans should be better than that. Is this really the way to build a community? Is this really the way people want to live?  Is this how to build a society we can be proud of? Try showing a little compassion and kindness instead.

Why are so many music stars taking their own life?


Another week has gone by, and another music icon has taken his own life. Chester Bennington, lead singer with Linkin Park, hanged himself on what would have been his good friend Chris Cornell’s birthday. Cornell hanged himself in May of this year, and Bennington sang at his funeral. Both of them had gigs coming up in the next few days. 

As part of my TBT posts this year I included a track from Audioslave, one of Cornell’s bands, in January. Linkin Park featured last month, and at the time I was unaware that the two singers were friends.

It’s hard to imagine what circumstances can have led two supremely talented and adored people to have felt that suicide was their only option, their only way to stop the feelings they had at that time. Dee and I have discussed it a lot since the news came out, as she felt a real connection with Linkin Park. We’re still no closer to having the answer, and I guess we’ll never know. 

They join a long list of stars who have died before they’ve got old, who have either deliberately or accidentally taken their own lives. At what point will society stop to wonder why that might be, why these individuals have felt so lost and so alone that death becomes their only real answer? I think society needs start asking those questions sooner rather than later. 

If you’re in the UK and are having suicidal thoughts, please contact The Samaritans using the contact details below. If you’re elsewhere, please reach out and talk to someone, find those people who are there to help.

Presenting … presentations

I was recently fortunate enough to present to a room full of fellow professionals at an event in Europe. I’d known for several months that I’d be doing so, and for me it was a big deal. It was the first time I’d had the opportunity, and there was the potential to be presenting to well over 100 people – but I wouldn’t know the real figure till I got started. 

The room I was due to present in…

I was determined that I wasn’t going to blow it.  

I’m guessing that most of you have, like me, sat through your fair share of presentations. I’m also guessing that many of those have been dire, where the presenter spent most of the time droning on in a monotone, reading verbatim from every slide, and every slide was covered in dense text with occasional bullet points.  

I’m guessing that the number of presentations which has given you a lightbulb moment, an “aha” moment, some kind of inspiration and which have left you feeling energised and enthusiastic is few and far between.  

For my talk, I was determined that I wasn’t going to produce a dire presentation, and that I would do my best to be inspirational and have the attendees enthused by my presentation.  I was also aware that the topic – retraining existing staff to work in cyber security – had the potential to be very dull indeed.  

Regular readers of my blog will know that I really like TED talks, that I watch or listen to a lot of them, so I thought I’d try to produce my own version.  I therefore did a lot of background reading, with emphasis on how to prepare and deliver TED-worthy presentations (yes, there are a lot of books out there which cover that topic). 

I learned that even before starting on my slides, I should work out what messages I wanted to convey, what the key points were. I should work on having a killer opening, one which engaged and intrigued the audience from the outset, one which grabbed their attention. 

I also learned that when it comes to slides, words = bad, pictures or images = good. After all, you want people to be focussed on what you’re saying, not on reading what’s on the slide. If you’re reading off the slide, why are you there? The attendees could simply be sent the slide deck and read that for themselves. Slides are an aide memoire, nothing more.

And I learned that your body gives a lot away when you’re talking. Moving around, shuffling from one foot to the next, fidgeting with your hands, jingling keys, says “so” or “um” a lot, all those sort of things detract from the message you’re hoping to convey, and reduce the perception that you’re an expert in the topic.    

I practiced what I was going to say – many times. I wrote out my introduction and honed that, many times.  I recorded clips of me presenting so I could see what bad habits I had – and tried not to do them. I ran through the slides over and over, reducing them to no more than 5 or 6 words on each.  All of this helped boost my confidence and reduce my nerves.  Unfortunately for Dee she also had to hear it several times, and her feedback was invaluable. 

Did it work?  Yes, I think it did.  Of the 60 or so people who came along, less than half left feedback, but on the whole the presentation was well received. For my first attempt at a big event like that, I was really pleased with the feedback.  

Will I take the same approach in future? Absolutely, if time permits.  I think the attendees benefited and I think I benefited from the process.  

The days of wordy slides and boring presenters should be at an end.  Make sure you’re not stuck in the past with them.

Reflections on poverty and a multicultural visit


I’ve been very fortunate this week to visit Prague as part of a business trip. Business was concluded early so I’ve had a bit of time to kill while waiting for my flight home. I came here last year with Dee and we both fell in love with the place. It’s not been the same without her, not quite as good, but it’s an enchanting city all the same. 
I’ve walked up to the castle, around the various buildings there and then back into the Old Town via the Charles Bridge. The views from the castle were superb, as were the sights while there. I’m now sitting in one of the main squares sipping iced tea, watching the world go by, and a number of things have struck me about this visit.

There seem to be fewer people begging this year. They kneel, elbows and head on the ground, with cups or hats outstretched, and don’t make a sound. Most of the streets are cobbled and it can’t be comfortable. Whether this is to encourage them to feel shame, to punish them for begging, or to prevent too many people doing it, you can’t help but feel for these people. 

It’s impossible to know their story, but trying to imagine how bad things must be got them to force them to beg in such a way is enough to make you weep. I wonder if there are less of them around because the authorities are cracking down hard on begging, whether they’ve been moved out of the tourist areas, or whether there are genuinely fewer people that need to beg here. 

While at the castle, I took the opportunity to visit the cathedral there. It is simply stunning on the inside. Upon reflection, there were visitors from all over the world inside that Roman Catholic building, and I’d be willing to bet that there were more non-Catholics in there than Catholics. It was apparent that all inside were marvelling at what they saw, from stained glass windows to the towering ceiling, and many were taking advantage of being in such a sacred space to commune with their god or their thoughts.

Walking the streets of this lively and lovely city, walking round the castle, and sitting as I am now having tea, I’ve been stuck by the plethora of languages spoken, at the number of visitors and at the number of nationalities represented. I can hear at least five languages at the moment – and none of them are English! 

I’m sitting here wondering at how everyone seems to get along. I’ve not heard an angry voice while I’ve been in the city. Staff everywhere are unfailingly polite. Is it simply the good weather that means all these faiths and creeds are enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of Prague, or is there something else? Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of the world could learn how to do this too?

Thoughts on mortality


Tomorrow I will be attending a family funeral. My relative died three weeks ago after a long battle with illness. He lived less than an hour from me, I knew he was seriously ill, but I never found the time to visit. Yet I’m finding the time to go and pay my respects, to support his family. In part that’s down to a sense of familial duty: going to funerals of relatives is what we as a family do.

That’s got to be the wrong way round, hasn’t it? Why have I waited till someone dies before paying my respects, before going to see him and his family. Isn’t the time that he (and they) most need me is when he’s still alive, so he knows that he’s in my thoughts? Isn’t that the kind thing, the caring thing, the right thing to do? These are thoughts that have been eating me up, and Dee has been very supportive throughout. 

That’s something that I recognise I need to do better. Spending time with people when they’re alive is a rare privilege, because all too soon they’re gone, and you’ll never have that opportunity again. 

Over 10 years ago I made a good friend when I trekked on Kilimanjaro. We never saw each other after spending those 10 or 11 days on the trip, but we spoke every couple of months and the friendship continued. It was a friendship born out of shared experience, and there were no romantic notions or undertones. One Christmas she emailed me to tell me she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. A few days later my house was flooded due to burst pipes and things were up in the air, with me staying in a hotel for a fortnight while repairs were done and the house dried out. At the end of January I thought I would drop my friend a line, but I saw on Facebook that she’d passed away a few days before. 

I was shocked by how quickly that had happened. I’d had no idea she was so poorly. And I’d had days where I did nothing but watch TV waiting for my house to dry out. Why hadn’t I phoned her, gone to see her, let her know I was thinking of her? 

It’s plain to see that I didn’t learn my lesson, but I’m determined to learn it now. Life is short. Life is precious. Spend your time with those you love and like. Be good to those around you and make the most of every moment you get to spend with them.