January and February? Gah! What are they for other than self-flagellation? With festivities just a liver-scarring memory, the nights long, and the days hatefully grey… I usually use the first part of the year to brood like Milton’s Satan on the vast abyss of my shortcomings. But this year I did something different. I tidied up.
It started with a giant Kim Jong-un eraser. Looking into its plump orange face I decided that the Supreme Leader represented an opportunity to chuck out the half dozen age-hardened erasers I’d hoarded. This was just the beginning. Soon I began to see each item of clutter as a decision I’d not yet made, and a ruthless mood fell on me. I gave bags of clothes and shoes to charity, methodically I decluttered my office, weeded papers from files, organised my computer and took dozens of books to charity shops. I even employed a friend to come and lift up the floorboards and sort a joist problem out. For a few weeks there, there was nothing I couldn’t do. The result is the feeling of having a clean desk, but much magnified. There are gaps in my seven bookcases for new books, and new ideas, and I can pretty much put my hand on anything I need. Win!
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Last winter, on a train to work, I was tutting over the ‘brand values’ of a new product I had to do some advertising work on. Millions of pounds had been spent on the product, but the generically aspirational abstract nouns pretending to be values were laughable.
Shortly before this, Lorraine, my headteacher wife, had been refining her school’s values too. So it was inevitable that I ask myself this question: what do I stand for? And, then: what are the values of Brand Kenny?
Rattling back and forth to London I had plenty of opportunity to consider what my values should be. Since then I have asked several people what they thought their values were. It is well worth thinking about for yourself. Here are mine:
- Creativity – As this is how I make a living, a life without being creative would be unthinkable. But I have met people with Creative in their job title, who are far from creative. I may live my life doing creative work, but am I living my life creatively? Even though I work in advertising, and write poems, plays and so on, there is always room to apply the creative thinking to other areas of your life.
- Courage – Life may not always call for heroism, but there are always opportunities for moments of micro-courage. Having experienced bouts of extreme anxiety, I know that just leaving the house can be an act of extraordinary courage for some. While I was thinking about these values I was planning to take a play to Edinburgh. There were a thousand reasons not to, of course, but deciding to be brave is exhilarating. Even such tiny moments of courage can be life affirming.
- Compassion – Wanting to write something to give others comfort drove me to write my children’s novel, currently languishing in slush piles. But I have worked with charities since my teens and done some gritty stuff, as a researcher talking to people with mesothelioma with Nancy Tait, to campaigning against Racism in Children’s literature, to making TV adverts for humanitarian or health organisations such as this experience in Chad. Compassion is important because, as a writer, life can be very inward looking. Goaded by January and February demons, I realise that compassion can also extend to yourself too. For me, compassion also contains the notion of empathy, and without empathy it is impossible to write convincingly.
But can these abstract nouns, Creativity, Courage and Compassion really change anything practical?
I think the answer is that they can, if you want them to.
Every time I make a new to-do list (on a fresh A4 page of my yellow lined notebook in blue ink) I write Creativity, Courage and Compassion at the top of the page. Having listed the things that must be done, I ask myself what if any of these tasks has anything to do with my values. If not, I ask myself why I am doing them. I’m increasingly relying on my values as a way of prioritising what I do, and working out why I am doing it.
Try it. You might like it. So… What do you stand for?