Or taking control of life’s challenges

3 or 4 years ago and a guy asked me if I wanted to sign up to a charity lottery. I encountered resistance when I turned down the opportunity because he couldn’t get his head around my answer. It was an excellent cause and I could always give my winnings back should I be the lucky winner. But charitable giving, where there was something in it for me, didn’t interest me even if I committed myself to being a not-for-profit participant. It wasn’t an ethical or moral conundrum, it was merely a personal choice which this guy wasn’t ready to accept.

At one time anything remotely connected with gambling would have been off limits to me as a Christian. I wonder if there is still a remnant of that belief informing my choices. For fundamentalist Christians gambling is an affront to God’s will. However logic would suggest that insurance is no less a way of circumventing God’s plan than buying a lottery ticket. Where this really comes from is the concept of being in the world but not of it . A noble gesture but impossible to practice.

A more dominant facet of my psyche is the fear of competition which comes from my childhood. I didn’t get picked for the football team for the simple reason that I wasn’t any good at it. When it came to afternoon play, in my first year of school, the sandpit was my only option. The idea that we have to compete for anything of value wasn’t part of my mindset. I had no skills n that area and didn’t understand the mechanics of it. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I had any concept of how passive I was.

And those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball
At Seventeen by Janis Ian

Finding my voice

Ironically I was good at British Bulldog. For those unfamiliar with the game, the version we played in scouts was where all the boys would line up against an end wall while one kid stood in the middle of the room. The boys would run the gauntlet and if the kid in the middle could hold his prey until he’d finished saying “British Bulldog 1,2,3” he’d have another one on his team. This would continue until everybody but one was in the middle of the room.

I wasn’t strong or particularly quick, I was just small for my age and agile, able to wriggle out of an entrapment or escape it altogether. When you are not good at winning you learn not to lose but then, even if you’re a medal winner you never get to win gold. When I got into running I was always happy simply to beat my personal best (PB). I was never going to win a race or even come in the top half. That still made for personal development but always settling for the middle means you never make concrete steps forward. You just get better at building sand castles.

Being an introvert, I thought, meant being shy, not talking to strangers and keeping ones-self to ones-self. Yet when I learned to play guitar I was desperate to play to strangers and often put myself out there. Where my introversion came into play was the debriefing when I got home. I’d have sleepless nights going over the mistakes, believing everyone in the audience was as critical of them as I was. However I wasn’t joining up the dots. When I feel strongly about something I’ve always been able to stand up and champion the cause like a politician.

Extrovert and introvert are better defined by how they are empowered. Extroverts are empowered by the company of others while introverts need time on their own to recharge their batteries.

The challenge of leadership

In 2017 I was recruited to a Big Local group. This is a resident led partnerships where £1 million of National Lottery money has been assigned to improve the local area. The group doesn’t see the money but is able to draw it down in order to support local projects. A local trusted organisation (LTO) takes care of finance and bears legal responsibility. This frees the partners to make decisions without being held personally liable. Our group elects a chair each year and every member is a candidate unless they opt out. Thus I became chair in 2019 without actually putting myself forward.

In my first meeting as chair I introduced a new rule that you had to hold your hand up before contributing to a discussion. Everyone, to my surprise, took to the rule straight away with no resistance. I learned first hand how a title can command respect, though I soon discovered that this was only a rule of thumb and not a given. One experience that will stay with me is a meeting in which we called together a group of councillors and council officers to discuss one of the community’s burning issues.

The day could have started out better. I’d had a difficult conversion with one of the members earlier. I also had to liaise with the caterer who had yet to arrive when the meeting should have started. Though I wasn’t chairing the meeting I was asked to introduce the first session. My mind was a complete blank and I had nothing prepared. So I took one thought and stepped from thought to thought like they were stepping stones. It turned out my impromptu speech set the tone for the rest of the meeting which lasted 3 hours. At 3 hours no one was itching to leave.

Hidden talents

I recently came across the following, apparently written on a school wall. People are raving about it but I find it troubling.

Some kids are smarter than you,
have cooler clothes than you,
are better at sports than you.
You have your thing too.
Be the kid who can get along,
who is generous,
the kid who is happy for others,
who does the right thing.
Be the nice kid

(unknown origin)

What this doesn’t challenge is the fragility within a hierarchy of talents. Being very smart can be a curse. The coolness of clothes is very subjective. Sporting excellence can be very transient. And how do you evaluate someone with no visible talent, who doesn’t get along with others and is always in trouble? Nice people get crushed and horrible people get away with crushing them. But what’s also true is that within each of us is a unique talent that, were it exposed, would be the envy of others. Being nice and being good are not talents. They are hardly even virtues.

I’ve met talented and stunningly attractive people who tick all these boxes. More often than not they don’t see themselves as superior and can often spot the talents within you that you cannot see. It does matter that they seem smarter and better than you. Instead of compensating for your apparent mediocrity you need to challenge that value system so you can sit on top of your own castle.

If I were to take all my achievements and failures, my evaluation of them would focus on empowerment. In almost all endeavors, agency is the key to success, that of being the maintainer of your own destiny. Yet we often lack agency, not because we are powerless, but because we haven’t understood what power we have or haven’t appreciated that we can simply say no. Our past can install powerlessness within us through incidents and things people have said, regardless of the intention.


I’ve wracked my brain over why I lacked a sense of agency as a child, and I’ve drawn a blank. Yet I can point to situations and encounters that exacerbated that deficit including my own complicity. I have no criticism regarding the charity lottery, no sense of winning an argument or standing by my principles. If I have any satisfaction it’s that I felt comfortable in making a decision on my own terms. It’s our sense of agency that empowers us to do good. After all, there’s only so much we can do as individuals.

As a performer you have to own your space. I know someone who would, at one time, begin her open mic sets excusing her unpreparedness. It worked for a new audience, who would congratulate her on doing so well despite her lack of practice. However the rule of thumb for a performer is never to apologise beforehand and to only apologise for a mistake unless you absolutely have to. It’s unfair to put the responsibility for covering your mistakes on your audience. It’s surprising the difference it makes to your performance when you respect this unwritten performer/audience protocol.

I’ve always resisted norms and conventions and have had people comment on my independence of thought. Yet unless the norms and conventions are challenged nothing changes. Unless you convert your convictions into actions and risk rejection and failure you can’t achieve lasting change. This has been my downfall. He who never lost a battle never won a war and, as someone said, all good things come to he who waits who doesn’t die in the meantime*.

Life is full of challenges, each one like a Norman castle. You have to storm the castle and take the keep. You don’t need to storm castles others have taken, just the one with your name on it. The alternative is to build your own castle in the sand. The castle might be a lovely, with flags and shells. But the tide will wash it away.

*this isn’t my quote, but I don’t know who said it.

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