I have to begin my list of principles with this one about perspective, because your perspective literally colours everything you do. Your perspective is how you see things. But it is also how you choose to see things. For the most part, you cannot choose how things are (we are only partially in control of our destiny), only how you see them. We can all struggle, at times, to keep life in perspective. We can get blinkered by our problems that, though seem huge to us, are usually fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things.
Life is easier to navigate when you stay grounded.
One of the most important ways in which I keep my working life in perspective is by being actively involved in the inductions for all new members of staff when they join the company. I speak to them en masse on their first day to give them some background on me and the company. I especially want to impress upon them our strong collaborative culture. I think it's really important for me to establish a relationship with anyone who comes to work in my company, no matter how big the workforce grows. And it reminds me what it feels like to enter a big organization, full of expectation, with everything to learn. I want every new recruit to feel that they have been acknowledged by me, personally, and I need to be able to share my vision of the company with everyone. I need to show them what my “why” is. But, I tell them, they must find their own “why.” I can show people what inspired me, and I can hope that I inspire them, but every person needs to know – for themselves – what their own “why” is. Everyone needs a “why” in life. What is the reason you are doing what you are doing right now? Why do you get up and go to work in the morning? If you know the answers to those questions, you will find it easier to keep life in perspective.
You have to know your “why” and believe in it.
When I do the inductions with the new recruits, I always say to them, “I believe in you, we believe in you, as a company (otherwise you wouldn't be here), but that's not enough. You need to believe in you!”
I also love getting perspective when we take on a whole group of new trainees and I learn about all the different walks of life people come from. I can be making a speech – as part of the induction – to a room full of about 30 people and they will all have such different, individual backgrounds. We've had people who have been gardeners, waiters, stay-at-home mums, taxi drivers – as well as graduates and people who have come from unrelated professions. Someone who is an ex-police officer could be sitting next to a former nursery school teacher. I always love hearing their stories. But no matter what their background is, they all have one thing in common: they have decided to embark on a new direction in life by coming to work with us. Some of them will study hard and pass their qualifications; some will drop out. But each one of them tried. They gave something new a go. And that experience alone will give them a new perspective, no matter what they end up going for in life.
We all have moments in life when we need to get a little perspective. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by something, or too focused on the minutiae of an issue, I have this great way of finding instant perspective.
I once heard that there are around a billion trillion stars in the observable universe (about 100 billion stars in each of the 10 billion observable galaxies in the universe, or something like that!). Apparently, there are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand in all the deserts and beaches of the world. Well, once you start talking about the number of stars in the universe, and you think about how far away they are and how little time the Earth has even existed for – and how human beings have only been around (relatively speaking) for about a split second – you really get perspective. When you put it in those terms, we really are rather insignificant. We are around on this Earth for the blink of an eye, so each day that we live is infinitesimally small when viewed in the context of the age of the planet we live on.
In this day and age of super-fast technology and rapidly advancing development, it can be difficult to take a breath and get perspective. When everything is coming at us at once, at incredible speed, our close-up perspective can hinder us. Think of how technology serves up knowledge to us these days. We almost get too much information too quickly. We know almost everything that is going on in the world with one glance at a screen. We can scroll through our chosen news site, or our social media pages, and we know in the blink of an eye about the elections in Brazil, the death of a famous rock star, a volcano that has erupted in Mexico and the latest football scores. We have become hyper-aware, and I'm not so sure that is always useful. Sometimes you may need to narrow your perspective for a window of time, so that you can concentrate on what you need to get done. We are surrounded by distractions all the time.
When I find myself overwhelmed, especially when I realize I am worrying too much over things that I have no control over, I always remind myself of the “serenity prayer” that I heard a long time ago. It was reportedly composed (at least a version of it) by an American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote it for a sermon in the 1930s, and I am told it is used in “12-Step Meetings” that help recovering addicts. It is commonly quoted as:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Whenever I think of these words, they can stop me in my tracks and give me instant perspective. We all waste far too much time agonizing over things we cannot change, and most of us are adept at procrastinating over the things we could and should be changing!
Nothing ever gave me more perspective in life than my experience on the Great Wall of China. This is one of the best moments of my life… because it was so utterly unexpected and random.
I had been travelling in China, as I explained earlier, with Chris and Samantha. We had gone, with another small group of people, to explore the Great Wall of China.
Feeling a little adventurous, we had gone off the beaten track, away from the very commercial area and into the more remote parts. There was no one else around, just the eight or nine of us in the group. We had hiked for around 25 miles. The only people we saw were the old women who were offering to carry people's bags up the steps (the whole wall is a series of endless steps up and down as it traverses over the hill tops). This was a huge eye-opener. The women looked like they were in their 80s, and yet they were making a modest amount of money to live on by carrying people's bags. I thought of most women their age living in England, and how they would be living in retirement with plenty of help around the home. And here were these very elderly women in China doing manual labour to make enough money to eat. For a 26-year-old boy from Surrey, this was astonishing and gave me real perspective on my own life, and how I had been very fortunate in the way I had been able to make my money.
But the next thing that we experienced was even more unexpected and bizarre, and really turned our heads.
We were walking along the wall, which seemed to be deserted, trying to make it to a turret so that we could put our sleeping bags down and get some rest. You're not really meant to sleep on the wall, but we thought there was little chance of being found in this remote area.
Suddenly, an old man appeared from nowhere. He could have been in his 70s or even 80s and he was dressed in simple clothes. He started speaking to us. Our Chinese wasn't great at that point, but we understood, more or less, that he was asking if we were cold. We indicated to him that we were, indeed, a little chilly. He motioned to us that we should wait there. We were too intrigued to leave and in a very short time, he returned with firewood and lit a fire for us. We were astonished but very grateful. We were just thinking how lucky we were when seemingly out of nowhere, but I assume out of some deep pockets in his coat, he produced some beers. We started giggling in bewilderment; we couldn't believe our luck. I even started to wonder if we'd been out walking too long and were so tired we were hallucinating. Next, he got up and started to pretend to kick a football and seemed to be asking us if we were interested in football, so we nodded. This was in the summer of 2002 and the World Cup was on. For a moment I assumed he wanted to play football – and then he disappeared again over the wall. I wondered if he was going to get a football that we could kick around. However, we were absolutely astonished when he reappeared with a television. Who knows where it was being powered from, but the cable was running off down the side of the wall. I even pictured someone peddling a bicycle hooked up to a generator!
The whole experience was extraordinary. One minute we had been walking along a remote, deserted part of the Great Wall of China looking for somewhere to sleep – and then the next thing we knew, we were huddled around a nice fire, drinking cold beers and watching the China vs. Brazil game in the World Cup. (It was the first year China had qualified.) We were watching one of the lowest ranked teams play against one of the highest ranked teams of the competition. The fact that Brazil beat China 4-0 and China didn't get past the group stage was meaningless compared with the fact that we had watched the game in China… on the actual Great Wall of China!
I'm not sure I've had many experiences in life that have given me more perspective than that.
I don't even think we gave the “Great Wall of China Man” any money. I have this vague memory that he wouldn't take anything, or perhaps he would only accept enough to cover the price of the beers. He seemed to be doing it simply to be nice.
My experience on the Great Wall of China taught me to expect the unexpected at any time. You never, ever know what might be around the next corner. You can never take life for granted, or expect it to carry on as you've predicted. Nothing in the world could have forewarned us of that man appearing and providing us with a campfire, beers and a television! This just shows you that anything can happen at any time.
Don't assume things will stay the same forever. No matter where you think you are in life, you never know what's going to pop up. Never assume anything; the more you assume, the more you have to lose.
Nothing can stay the same forever. I thought my mum was going to be around for ages. I hadn't ever considered the idea that she might die when she was only 76 because she was always so full of life and in fine health. She was the youngest of six children by around ten years. I recently spent time with two of her older brothers who are now aged 92 and 96. I hardly know them because I didn't spend enough time with them while we were growing up. I was so sad that it took Mum dying for us to spend time together. Because Mum had two brothers in their 90s, I just assumed she would be around for another 15 years or so.
Life is so fragile and fleeting.
Sometimes life deals you a hand you weren't expecting. I have seen people get sideswiped in life, and I've had moments, myself, when things seemed to crumble around my feet. But I am not a fan of procrastination. You have to keep moving forward no matter what happens. If your path gets blocked, you go back and find another way; you don't just sit by the brick wall waiting for it to fall down. You can learn from the obstacles that stand in your way, but you can't let your progress be obstructed by dwelling on things that you can't change… sadly, I have seen too many people do this.
The worst obstacle you can ever let get in your way is self-pity and that is something that you can change. You have to learn from the things you can't change and focus on the things you can change and keep moving forward.
Of course, it's a fine balance. Perspective is related to your experience in life. For example, it's very hard for children to have perspective when they've been alive for such a relatively short time. You can't force perspective on children. They will never fully understand and see things the way you do now. They will get it one day, but in their own way and their own time. I try to impress upon my children that when I was their age, we lived in a small two-bedroom house; you could fit five or six of those houses into our current six-bedroom house. I take them to see the house I grew up in, to give them perspective – but they don't get it. I remember my father driving me to see his old flat in Bayswater and explaining to me that they used to live in that tiny studio flat.
At the time, I didn't get it. I do now!
My dad's father wanted to do it to him, too, to show him where his father (my father's grandfather, my great-grandfather) was from in China.
I think this is all because, as we get older, we want to look at our “beginnings” again. You become very curious about where you came from and how you got to where you are. It's such a cliché when parents say to children, “You'll understand when you're older.” But it's so true!
Mum's death really shook up my perspective on life and made me review how much time I spend with my own family. I always review whether I am spending enough time with my children, whether I'm spending as much as I can. I love doing the school run, which I try to do at least twice a week. I think my children like it too. Although it may just be that they like my fancy sports car. If I tell them we are going in the big, boring “family car” there is definitely less excitement. That's perspective for you… a great example of “lack of it!” But, as I always say:
Perspective comes with age and experience.