How to be human
A couple of weeks back, we had a together day at work.
If you are wondering what that is, it’s exactly what it says on the tin. The aim of the day is to spend it together both working and being… together.
The first part of the day was pure work.
We spent time discussing what needs to be true at the same time for our collective success. What interdependencies and trade-offs we have to acknowledge and discuss. We spent time staring into how what each team does affects what each team deals with.
It was good.
The second half of the day was lunch and cakes and cheese and a cheeky drink and games and so much laughter.
That was even better.
At the start of the day, I stood up on stage and looked into the audience and, true enough, people were already embracing the togetherness of it all. Folks were sitting in small, animated clusters, chatting with their teams. Big smiles.
We are remote-first at 10x and that’s amazing, but there they all were, clutching coffee mugs and sharing a joke and that was amazing too: actually being with the team. Not in a meeting. Just humans being.
Plus, as the day wore on, you could see them mingling. Folks that never had occasion to talk during the course of their working day are now puzzling together over an implausibly energetic VR game and discussing how surprisingly good vegan cheese is.
These days work. And they matter.
Somewhere between the business part and the mini-golf part, we had a guest speaker. Pretty standard fare, you might say.
Our speaker was polar explorer Ann Daniels. Nothing standard there, it turns out.
If you had asked me the night before, when I dragged my suitcase up the stairs after a delayed flight, a mere seven hours before I had to be en route to the office, I would have told you I could take or leave the guest speaker part of the day.
I mean, I didn’t not look forward to it. But I didn’t actively look forward to it either.
It had been a long week. The main aim of the day for me was to get the teams feeling responsible for each other’s success and wellbeing. So I was loosely aware of the fact that a life and death setting for the challenges of really working as a team was a very good choice for a guest speaker, but I didn’t think about it much beyond that.
I had no doubt it would be interesting. I just didn’t feel personally invested. Polar explorin’ ain’t a thing I have ever thought longingly about.
I hate the cold.
I have the working-class kid’s instinct of self-indulgence alert when I hear stories of people putting themselves in impossibly dangerous situations for adventure.
So I had a fleeting thought of ‘how exposed is my screen, can I catch up on some work during this?’ and swiftly decided ‘very and no’, so I settled down for what I expected to be corporate ‘painting by numbers’ along the lines of ‘this is my experience and this is how I can stretch it to apply to yours’.
I have listened to adventurers turned corporate speakers before.
Their speech is mostly about the fact that they are indeed… awesome.
They are made of sterner stuff. They have had single-minded focus since they were eight. Their life and story is a montage of inevitability, the reversals they choose to share are formulaic and formative but never even remotely seminal. You can’t be like them, but maybe you can have inspiration to apply to your less exciting and not-so-life-and-death problems.
So I was expecting instantly forgettable pleasantness.
That, needless to say, is not what I got.
Boy, I love being wrong.
Being wrong is the best proof I have that I am thinking in advance of encountering situations and learning in the process.
But back to my story.
First of all, she was so human and self-deprecating and… funny.
She was hilarious. Not the odd well practiced joke. She was funny. Life-affirmingly, laugh-out-loud funny.
And her story was raw and real. And for everyone in the audience who never wanted to be a polar explorer, there was something so evocative in the image of a council block kid who became a single mum who needed to find meaning and purpose and structure for a life that didn’t play out as she planned.
I mean. A life that didn’t work out as planned is something we can all relate to, if we are honest with ourselves.
At work and life. So, I am listening, sister.
What followed was a story of perseverance and team spirit and an exercise in making lemonade when life gives you lemons but also not stopping there and actually becoming the mother-f’ing queen of speciality lemon sorbet. Without a prior interest in lemons.
That was what was so amazing about the story.
She hadn’t always wanted to go to the North Pole. The story wasn’t about that. It was about making the most of the life you have and giving it your all when opportunity presents itself. Really giving it your all. No matter how hard that actually is on a day to day.
Personally, I don’t want to go to the North Pole, like, ever.
I don’t want to be cold. I don’t want to solve the problems that Ann and her team encountered.
But I do want to be surrounded by people who give the thing they’ve decided to do their all.
By people who don’t take themselves too seriously and feel lucky to have the chance to do whatever it is they are doing.
You understand, Ann said, this is an adventure. First and foremost. But in order to go on the adventure, we need to align people – including a whole host of sponsors – convince them to support us and help them get what they need in the process (things like scientific inputs and photos and measurements). And, while doing that, we have to keep each other safe and focused.
To achieve all this at the same time, and in the time agreed and before the supplies run out, we have to work together, stay focused and ask for help. Asking for help is bad for ego but good for the mission.
In life and business, all I have to say to all this is… yes.
The idea of things that need to be true at the same time was key to what we were trying to do that day. Check. The idea of being honest with each other and asking for help is key to working well always.
And look. On a certain level, I knew to expect all this. She delivered beautifully and she delivered to the brief. It hit the mark.
It was a delight and it was not meant to be a surprise so it wasn’t.
It was meant to be an affirmation. Along the lines of: the things you know are important really are. So don’t forget to do the right thing for the things you know are important.
And for the rest: be human.
Don’t add too many frills. Be human. If it’s hard, call it. If you need help, ask for it. If it’s important, do it.
It’s easy to say all these things, though, isn’t it? Standing in a warm amphitheatre, in a smart suit and beautiful heels that couldn’t be in sharper contrast to the snow and hardship projected in a slide show behind her.
It’s easy to say ‘it’s important to be human, it’s important to ask for help, it’s important to remember that your ego gets in the way of both your survival and the team’s success’ when you are speaking from the far side of success. It’s easy to get it right when it’s a montage after the fact and you are the storyteller.
It’s easy to celebrate vulnerability as wisdom when you stand triumphant. But in the moment? What does it look like in the moment?
And as I said, I love being wrong.
Ann showed us a video filmed during a solo mission. It’s her. A great expanse of ice and three polar bears that look like they think she looks like lunch.
In the video, she sounds terrified.
Properly, absolutely scared.
I thought, ‘I love her for showing this video: inexpertly filmed, unfiltered and raw’. I was happy with that as a parting lesson. But that was not the greatest lesson of the day. That came a split second later.
She’s looking at three polar bears in the distance. You can hear her voice drip with fear on the recording.
I have tried to do what I was trained to do and it hasn’t worked yet, she is saying.
I am here and they are here… she says… And I am waiting for some grand rejoinder voiceover as she silences the video, but no. She lets the recording play on and we hear her say all we need to say and rarely have the guts to:
Here I am and here they are and here’s the situation… and I don’t like it.
She has her s**t together. She is not falling apart. She is in control. But she is afraid.
So back to my question: how do you demonstrate humanity and vulnerability in the moment?
This is my answer. And this is how you do it.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!