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  • Ben

14 Eras, Environments, and Experiences That Shaped Me

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

Each and every one of us is unique - a cosmic interaction of genetic, cultural, and environmental complexity.


What are your special ingredients?


1. Childhood


Insecure sums it up succinctly. We can’t control the circumstances we are born into - I never met my biological father as he left my mum before I was born.  The postcode I was born into had a life expectancy of 7 years shorter than my friends a couple of miles away.  I felt deep shame from being poor and the consequence of this was a lifetime running from this feeling.  I now understand the things I missed in childhood I crave in adulthood - security, love, attention, and belonging.  I don’t blame anybody because I know life is hard and people try their best.  I couldn’t do better in other people’s shoes. 


I am driven by the question - what more can we do to improve the conditions and for our younger generations?


2. Encountering Strangers


Challenges open the door to opportunities.  A stranger walked into my life when I was 7 and my step father became my father.  He helped make me who I am.  I have had gratitude for the power of chance encounters ever since. For me, love and connection stretches beyond the blood-lines that determine the in/out relationships which shape our experience. 


The media made us suspicious of strangers, how do we build bridges?  The others, the strangers, they’re much like us, what more can we do to cross paths and encounter each other in the real world?


3. Diversity, Variety, Breadth


I feel lucky to be exposed to the diversity of people, experiences, environments, and feelings I had in childhood.  I was curious and loved to explore.  I actively sought out new opinions and ideas which challenged what I thought I knew. I had great friends to look up to, and they had amazing parents too - I listened, observed, and learnt from all of them.  I was tolerant of risk and happily explored beyond my estate perimeter, and as a consequence I wasn’t confined to a narrow perspective of life.  I have always had broad interests, I love discovering patterns, and finding how everything connects in the real world. 


In a hyper-connected, complex, and interdependent world, is an army of narrow specialised cogs the optimal solution?  Are algorithms that place us in narrow buckets and echo chambers doing more harm than good?  How can we make sense of the world without ever encountering different perspectives or ideas?


4. School


Education was mostly uninspiring.  We all get from a-to-b in our own way but education didn’t teach me how to learn, or prepare me for life.  I found out that I enjoyed coursework over exams because it was less constricting.  The subjects I found the most stimulating were because of the people teaching them.  Learning is so much easier if there’s passion, rather than going through the motions because we have to.  I discovered later in life that I learn through visuals, imitation, dialogue, discovery, emotions and experiencing an idea or fact  in a real life situation.  It’s almost the exact opposite to how we teach in a classroom.  I didn’t fall through the cracks because I was able to do the work when I needed to.  The urgency and pressure of exams meant I tried during a short period and that was it. We are told it’s only the grades that count, then why pretend to care the rest of the time?  I chose A-Levels badly (maths, physics, economics).  These were too theoretical and distant from my daily existence.  No point wasting sixth form as it was an opportunity to socialise and develop life skills - I don’t regret this one iota.  I now volunteer in schools offering careers advice, sit on the regions skills board, and am an ambassador for the Careers & Enterprise Company. 


Why doesn’t education teach us how we learn?  Why does it stifle the two things we need more than ever - creativity and cooperation?


5. Exposure to Religion


I was a Catholic because my mum wanted me to be.  She was one too, although she rarely went to church.  I did however.  Every Sunday morning at 8:30am with my grandparents.  Church was a weird place but I enjoyed hanging out with the olds.  I went to Saturday school for a while, sang in the choir (badly), got confirmed (no idea what this means), and sat in a box every month asking the priest to forgive me for how I reacted to my home-life.  I witnessed kindness and solidarity amongst the people who attended church.  I went to Catholic school which meant that I ventured beyond the boundaries of my estate.  Although I resisted this at the time, it was probably a smart move.  I have life-long friends from this school.  I turned my back on Catholicism as soon as I started going to the pub.  I became more interested in science but never closed the door to religion entirely.  I was naive about the legacy of religions and how they inspired hate… I witnessed this close in  amongst football fans at the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000.  As I grew older I got the sense that science was starting to become a religion itself and was overreaching and straying from its domain.  Is it really down to science to define the meaning of life and what it is to be a human being?   The doubling down on certainty and reductionism has made me more curious about what we don’t know, a spiritual awakening if you like,  and perhaps a connection to something bigger.  But my experience as a child has pushed me away from anything structured or imposed, but it did at least pull back the curtain to reveal not everything in life can be explained. 


Why has science become a religion and doubled down on control and certainty?  Should science be more about exploring possibilities? How can spirituality and science intersect?


6. Work


I started with a paper round and loved it. I enjoyed cycling and being outdoors and also met my best mate too.  I followed this up with a stint at Homebase and enjoyed hanging out with many of the people that worked there.  Like most people who stay in my town; you either ended up at BT, working in a shop, or in Insurance.  Mine was the latter.  The work was repetitive, often mind-numbing, and made me feel like a robot.  The people were great, but the nature of the work made me long for the weekend.  My life for a while became 5 days of drudgery, 2 days of socialising.  I moved to London when I was 27 and exposure to different people, careers, and opportunities made me change careers before I was 30.  It was a risk but I asked myself, could I cope with working in Insurance until I was 65?  The answer was an emphatic no.  I was attracted to the advertising industry and I thought I could do it.  I got a break at a publisher and did 9 months before seeking a step up.  I joined the FT and worked there for 9 years.  It was an amazing experience.  Media, advertising, and finance was transforming around me and I was exposed to brilliant minds, and diverse people.  I was paid to socialise and do what I enjoyed.  I didn’t mind working on weekends because I was entertaining people who I loved hanging out with.  I lost the need to escape at the weekend because my job was stimulating.  I always have a need to explore and learn and my time came to leave London and return to Suffolk and with it a switch from digital media to the tech industry.  Like most people, I didn’t choose to specialise.  The breadth of experience and insights from multiple industries, environments, and mentors, has made me who I am.  I embrace the challenge of adapting. 


Why don’t we encourage people to try different careers rather than settling on the first one they try?  The people (especially the leader), the culture, the purpose, and the opportunity to learn for me make or break a job.  


7. Money


I was scarred by the lack of money and security this brings to family life.  It wasn’t like we would have to beg or rob, but there was this tension lurking there day after day.  I left home at 18 and shortly after my bank offered me a credit card.  I went to Ibiza with it and the next 10 years resulted in an accumulation of debt which sailed past my annual salary at times.  I paid every penny back after I got a job at the FT.  I started to feel slightly more secure but a year into my tenure and the financial crash of 2008 hit.  I was at the epicentre of this crisis and I lived it everyday.  It was exciting but it’s legacy perpetuated a lifelong nervousness.  I exchanged on a flat the week before Lehman’s collapsed.  I had been homeless for 2 months and was living on a friend's sofa.  The flat had dropped 20% in value but I had no choice but to go through with the purchase.  I needed somewhere to live, and renegotiating when every lender was metaphorically boarding up was not an option.  To add insult to injury, I had invested some money in shares which were riding high but effectively became worthless overnight.  I became incredibly aware of how money and the capitalist system drives our thoughts and behaviours.  I fought like crazy to escape my childhood, but I came to realise I am only ever one or two situations away from being back in poverty.  With safety nets ripped from beneath us, increasingly all of us are looking down at a trap door.  From my experiences, I am not convinced in the long-term viability of our systems.  I got made redundant a few months ago, and then Covid-19 struck.  I recognise that I can’t rely on institutions and organisations to look out for me, how can I become self sufficient and self organise with others to do the same thing? 


Insecurity holds people back from taking risks and trying new things?  Financial insecurity narrows our ability to think and see opportunities.  Our system perpetuates artificial scarcity which is a menace for society and stands in the way of progress.


8. Digital Technology


Tech should be fun - that's how I remember it as a kid.  It should make our lives better, safer, easier.  Tech should free us from drudgery.  I see the value in playing games - allows kids to have fun, create, and explore.  But workplace tech?  Why are we shackled to it every minute of the day?  The beauty of tech is when it’s invisible.  Our problem is that we’ve plugged innovation into old business models and outdated ways of working.  The outcome is an extra layer of disruption and complexity and reduced productivity and employee engagement.  Why do we need so many bloody apps just to have a conversation - are we mad?  I worked in digital advertising but found myself running ad blockers.  I worked in digital media but ended up quitting Facebook and Twitter.  I worked in tech and all I wanted to do was detox from screens and connect with people and the real world instead.  Have we become fetishised with these digital objects and lost sight of what we’re trying to achieve?  Digital tech can be intrusive, distracting, and alienating. 


How do we create sensible business models and ways to restore boundaries between human life and the machines which increasingly control us?  


9. Politics


I was brought up and informed that the only party I could vote for was Labour.  On the other hand my dad would only ever vote Conservative.  I was always curious about what lay beneath these entrenched views and how could I reconcile being a traitor to one?  The truth is I have always rebelled against fixed ideologies.  My personality, circumstances, and wisdom evolves every day.  I have never wanted to be wedded to a single idea about the world.  I have found out by living and experiencing life that everything is much more complex and nuanced.  Like economics, politics was a big part of my FT life. They overlap one another and as our economy has become about gimmicks, so too has our politics.  I am turned off by the show; the bravado, nonsense slogans, and endless spin.  I yearn for a politics which is more wholesome, localised, and truthful, and where participation is more than a vote and a beauty parade.  Choices have been imposed on us and we increasingly have become passive observers in the process.  Are the decisions taken from these choices really improving the outcomes of our lives?  This is what politics is about and in that sense, it stopped working some time ago. But to overcome this problem I (we) all need to become better informed, engaged, and active citizens. 


How do we make politics real again? How do we all become more engaged at the local level?


10. Nature


It goes without saying - without nature none of us would be here, but I am conscious of how connected I am with it.  It was a place for me to escape insecurity and fear.  It grounds, soothes, and inspires me.   I was frequently awe-struck by the power, such as the night of the 1987 storm.  I went into the garden with my cat under one arm and a torch in my other.  I sat looking up at the sky and watching our fence getting ripped apart.  My dad took me to a nearby wood the next morning and almost every tree was lying flat.  I always dreamt about chasing storms or becoming a volcanologist.  I settled for camping trips, fires, and adventure.  London had beautiful parks but I was disconnected from nature on the whole.  My body yearned to be reconnected and it was a big reason for returning to Suffolk where I enjoy gardening, growing food, and looking after our wildlife. 


How do we build in time each day to reconnect with the environment that subtly influences every bodily system?


11. Music 


I wouldn’t be here without my love for music.  My  mate who I met on my paper round would become my music buddy, amongst many others.  Music wasn’t just something you had in your ears… it was social, an experience, and something I felt emotionally connected with. It made working in a mundane job bearable.  It gave me a purpose, a reason to explore, and to try new things and meet new people.  I used to hang out in record shops (shout out to Red Eye, BASE, and Mad Records).  Our town had a half decent roster of D&B djs when I was growing up, and a few nightclubs too.  I remember the dj who really sparked my passion - Mr C from The Shamen.  It was totally new music to me.  Rob and I started our own night which launched on my 21st birthday.  We ran nights on and off for most of our 20’s and played alongside some of the legends we used to go and watch in London.  Many of my long term friends I met at random events or through records shops.  We were all curious, playful, and different but in many ways searching for the same thing… what is life about?  Music kept me sane, it made me aware, intuitive, and creative.  But a tribe also gave me a sense of belonging and the courage to leave my home town and explore a new landscape.  I became disconnected from the scene when it became too commercial, accessible, and stale.  Half of the enjoyment was in the journey and going to places no-one would dare, or know existed. 


What more can we do to create conditions for people to develop creative outlets?  


12. Health


How does trauma as an infant manifest in later life?  I have no recollection of my first few months but from what I am told I was close to dying.  My stomach didn’t form properly but this went undiagnosed for sometime.  Doctors advised gripe water, but as my condition deteriorated what I needed was an operation.  I had it and I survived, but it’s no surprise that my stomach became a weak link later in life.  When I was 10 I started developing acute pains in my side.  The pain would make me throw up and wipe me out for a day.  I would burn my skin by placing a boiling hot bottle over the pain as this sensation distracted me.  Doctors were convinced it was a stomach problem and I took gastro medicine for 5 years.  The pain never went away.  One doctor was called out to the house and I overheard him say that he felt I was imagining it.  Really?  I told my dad who I tended to be with when these pains came on.  The reality of the situation was that they failed to diagnose a kidney problem.  The hospital managed to lose my UltraSound which delayed the operation by several weeks.  The cause was a major blood vessel constricting my urethra which resulted in my kidney expanding.  My left kidney doesn’t function perfectly and the scar tissue still causes occasional pain.  Back to my stomach and fast forward to London.  My stomach was playing up, and doctors fobbed me off with the catch all IBS term.  Over 5 years my symptoms gradually worsened to the point I was almost unable to leave my home because I couldn’t control my faculties. WTF was going on?  I turned to the private sector for answers.  I had all sorts of procedures done, most of them unpleasant.  But I finally had answers.  I was allergic to foods high in fodmaps (a type of sugar) and these included pulses, beans, onions, garlic, all of which the dietician at the GP surgery recommended for a healthy gut.  My stomach wasn’t processing food like it was supposed to, and it was rejecting food which was high in fat and insoluble fibre.  A knock on effect was also a deficiency in micronutrients.  As this illness had manifested, it coincided with a rise in anxiety.  The gut and brain are interconnected, indeed, 95% of the neuro-chemical Serotonin is in the gut.  The anxiety from the physical effects led to me exploring mindfulness, but also a suggestion from the GP to try an antidepressant.  I took half the minimum dose as I was sceptical about them.  I felt a little numb but they changed my sleeping habits, and I suddenly became an insomniac.  The more I didn’t sleep, the more I felt reliant on these tablets to function and there the trap is laid.  The move back to Suffolk and a reconnection with nature had a surprising effect on my physical health.  Years of acute problems vanished, and my suspicion is that my body adapted to processing pollution and rejected nature.  Could cleaner air and being amongst greenery change our bodies that much?  I believe so.  But the health challenges moved from my stomach to my head.


How sick are we become through the poor air quality, the processed food, and our water?


13. Emotional Health


I understood mental health issues from a young age - I witnessed them at home, in my neighbourhood, and throughout life.  Up until my stomach-driven-anxiety struck, I was robust and resilient.  Anxiety gnaws away though, and when sleep deprivation kicks in it is difficult to get too grips with.  I relocated back to Suffolk and started a new career, with a different environment, people, and culture.  Everything felt different to what I had in London and at the FT.  I swapped people, collaboration, and a Thames office for competition, screens, and a view looking out at a distribution depot.  We are a product of our work, those around us, and the environment we find ourselves in.  I was disorientated and it was making me ill.  Anxiety led to stress, led to insomnia and the spiral took me to the doctors.  I suspected I had ADHD, but was told the GP couldn’t help adults with ADHD.  Throughout the whole county, there was nobody in post to help.  I was going round in circles and again I went private.  I was diagnosed with ADHD and went through 12 months of hell trying various medication combinations, and fighting the NHS (again) to agree to take on the prescription.  I support studies at King's College London where I met the UK’s leading ADHD expert - Prof Philip Asherson.  I understand a great deal about my brain and I have mixed feelings about labels and disorders.  It allowed me to regroup and move on but holding on to conditions holds me back.  I have always had ADHD but conditions, cultures, and environments can bring out the best or worst in us.  I have all the skills everyone else does, but I use them in different ways.  Stimulation and excitement calms me down.  I can cope with highly stressful situations but creeping stress day after day, week after week, causes problems.  I get energy, ideas, inspiration, meaning from people and experiences.  I process information and get clarity from being outside, moving, or playing sport.  I never stop thinking and working which is great if I love what I do, but poisonous if I don’t.  Yes, I can be distracted by possibilities and connections, but let’s face it we all lead distracted lives.  We need to find new healthy and personalised ways of leading our lives.  The NHS has let me down several times and my experience tells me it won’t be there for me next time.  Given the 7 years I lost through the postcode I was born into, I need to take matters into my own hands and optimise my living, learning, and working around optimal health.  I sit on the board of Healthwatch Suffolk. 


How do we respond on an individual (and collective basis) if we recognise the institutions that govern the security and wellbeing of our lives are no longer fit for purpose?  Our brains are not computers, and our bodies are not machines, so why do we mechanistically fix them like they are?  Why do we think we can transform these public services with the same problematic thinking that created them?


14. Love & Marriage


Last but not least! I was shaped by the failed relationships around me as I grew up. Finding love - and maintaining a healthy relationship - is an increasingly difficult thing to do today. I never thought I would settle down, but I surprised a lot of people by doing just that. But large formal weddings and all of the paraphernalia didn't appeal, so we did it our way. We appreciate our differences and when combined the sum of our relationship is greater than the parts... that's how it should be.