As we draw to the close of the year, I want to tell the story of my 2010. And I will. But first, I need to share 2001, the first year when life truly held up the mirror and said “stop.”
In 2000, my team at work had won a national award for innovation in recruitment and retention. There was love and connectedness in this small group of people who had come together to achieve something magnificent. I had been in corporate life for a decade, and my natural home – Talent and Organization Capability – for 6 years. And though young compared to my peers – I was 32 in 2000 – had been recognized for my own talent, earning my position on our local HR leadership team. With that promotion, I’d also entered the management ranks, where additional incentives kicked in, including bonus, share-options and company car.
In the common view of most in corporate life, my career was rocketing and I had ‘arrived’. My young self felt justified through my performance. I was proud. Others read that pride as arrogance – not my intent, but I can understand how my behaviour implied that.
But all of this is preamble to help set context for 2001.
In late December 2000, I was coming down with flu. From the Christmas shutdown, I looked towards an early January 2-day leadership team off-site to be held at a hotel about 12 miles away. My transport at the time was a 600cc sportsbike and, looking at the wintry conditions and how I was feeling, I booked an overnight room between the two days so that I didn’t have to make the risky journey home and back. I even said to Jane that I didn’t know whether I should be riding at all.
The off-site happened – full of the usual naval-gazing, planning, hope and resignation; promises to do things differently that lacked the commitment to be remembered beyond the flip-charts upon which they were captured. With my developing flu, I hardly had the energy to become my usual frustrated self. The meeting ended and I wrapped myself up in my biking protective gear, heading out into the cold night, conscious of the slushy rain that was falling, leaving a slick coating on the road. As luck and irony would have it, the local Audi garage was a mile away from the hotel and I stopped off there to look at my prospective company car, which would help me not have to ride during the winter. Then, once again, out into the night and its treacherous road conditions.
I don’t recall the accident. All I remember are flashbacks in the ambulance. In those flashbacks, I appear/wake-up
[I’m pretty sure I passed out with the flu while riding]
in a gentle corner, realize I’m too fast for the conditions and weigh up front-brake or back-brake. For those who don’t know bikes, a back-brake skid would slip the back wheel out from under me, dropping me under the bike and into a skid (towards the wall). A front-brake lock-up would stand the bike up, with the possibility of flipping me into the air in the direction of the skid. In the flashback I make the (wrong) choice to try and feather the front brake.
From my injuries and the damage to my helmet, I must have flown through the air, landing on my left side, chin, shoulder and hip. Two bones in my hand shattered, everything else was very bad bruising – my protective gear had saved me from much worse damage.
I woke up on a gurney, with my legs aching
[my friend Terry had broken his neck a decade earlier and when we were with him in hospital, we had to keep asking him to try and wiggle his toes – I had been wiggling my toes so much to prove that my neck wasn’t broken that my calf muscles were cramping]
unable to move. Doctors were looking at x-rays, one of which I noticed had a cigarette lighter that I’d had in my inner pocket. I disappeared again.
When I came back, Jane was sitting by the gurney. I still couldn’t move. I told her to take the cigarette lighter out of my pocket; that it was confusing the doctors. I disappeared again.
Throughout the next few days I disappeared and came back again with regularity – a symptom of my need to recover and the heavy, morphine-based sedation that had been applied. People visited, some of them real, some of them imagined. I only learnt of their presence through discussion once I’d recovered.
In those days, I experienced vivid hallucinations, mostly played out on the ceiling as I lay immobilised on the bed. In one, a rotting pile of meat in an empty warehouse, replete with flies and maggots; in another, a reformation priest climbing into his hiding hole by the fireplace, looking back over his shoulder and asking me to be quiet while the soldiers hammered at the door. These were not dreams – these were real events playing out in front of me – and I could not get away from them.
At one point, I awoke in floods of tears, and could not move to wipe them away, just as I could not remove their source.
“Why are you so unhappy?” I asked myself, “life’s going great. You’ve got the career, you’re being recognized. Why are you so unhappy?”
The answer was simple, and had been in front of me all along. Work had become the big thing and everything about life that I loved – Jane, music, writing – had taken on the role of potential escape routes. If only I got a recording contract I wouldn’t have to work, if only I got a publishing deal, if only… if only… if only…
In my period of forced meditation, I had no choice but to contemplate how I had got here, how I had chosen to be this person, and I decided that from that point on I would be the person I am, a plate juggler, a renaissance man, I would do everything I’m made to do and never again let anything become the one big thing that excluded all else.
I came out of hospital having made a deal with myself.
In the next few months, I revisited and finished ‘Do Sparrows Eat Butterflies?’, my shattered hand was recovering so I made only a small amount of music.
Besides, my working life was falling apart.
It started with the team which began, literally, to physically disintegrate. Within 2 months of my accident in our team of 11 people, we had 5 pregnancies, 2 miscarriages, 1 case of ME, 1 undiagnosed acute gastric illness and a terminal diagnosis of bone cancer. Here was I with my own post-traumatic baggage, trying to manage, care for and lead this team that was falling apart.
Alongside this physical stress, the company went into a pre-merger recruitment slow-down and the team was reassigned to wider duties. We had gone from a 12 people to 4, with the understanding that the team would regather when recruitment took off again. Little did I know the knives were being sharpened.
In March, at the height of the team’s crisis, the recruitment faucet came back on at full-force-plus, the workload would have taken 14 people to process. We had 4. Performance suffered. And all those who had resented our previous success took the knives from their sheaths. I and the remaining members of the team were working 15-hour days 6 days a week, and other members of the function were double-checking work just in the hope of finding an error they could take glee in correcting. When the work outstrips available resource by 300%, such errors happen. At just the point where we could have united, I was trapped in a game of cat-and-mouse with people who had previously been trusted colleagues.
These unnecessary, wasteful, pointless political games. Colleagues so frustrated by their own day-to-day that lashing out at me was easier than confronting their truth.
Betrayal is a bitter taste.
I wish I could have helped them.
I found myself by the summer once more buried in work, which was trying hard once again to become the big thing.
But Sparrows was finished. And I had managed to keep focus upon my hospital bed deal. I was exhausted.
The world became about days and moments. Make the right decision, catch the error, fix it, deal with the fall-out, shrug and move on. Swallow down the frustration and hurt into a small, molten ball at my core.
All the time, my own mantra: “Don’t let work become the big thing.”
In September, we launched a global approach to defining single, common career ladders and the kick-off meeting was held via video-conference. That Tuesday morning, I sat alone in a video-conference room in the UK, with everyone else gathered in Groton, CT. As ever, it was a difficult meeting, frustrating to be on the end of video-conference with folk who really didn’t know how to run virtual meetings; doing my best to participate, though hampered by technology and behavior.
I stepped out at one point to go to the bathroom. And someone said, “something’s happening in New York”. When I got back to the video-con and my laptop, I scanned the BBC website. A plane had hit the World Trade Center.
I watched the drama of the 9/11 attacks happen via the web, telling the people at the other end to finish the meeting, that they needed to be with family and friends. Not until there was an announcement at their end did they stop the meeting. By this time, all three planes had hit and the twin towers were burning.
I left the meeting room in a daze, stunned as many were on that day. I passed Adam in the corridor – “It’s like Kennedy,” he said, “everyone will remember where they were when this happened.” Plasma screens in our café showed events playing out, the collapsing towers.
Numb, all I could think of were the thousands of people who compromised their lives to go to work that day – who didn’t kiss their partners, who shouted at the kids for disturbing their emailing, who didn’t take a vacation because there was a short notice deadline. My deal had never been more in focus or visceral as it was walking back to my desk that morning.
In the next few days, we moved into crisis mode at work, monitoring colleagues who were travelling in the US at the time of the attacks and who couldn’t get home. The crisis team really came through, and did a job of which to be highly proud. On that team, all of us who had been at political loggerheads just weeks earlier, gathered to deliver what needed to be delivered.
At one point I was chatting with Dermott, my colleague and mentor, who had once told me everything is learning if you’re open to the lesson. Here I was, reeling from 9/11, the disintegration of our team, my good friend Jo facing a terminal cancer.
“I get it,” I said, “what more is there to learn?”
He urged me to stay open.
3 weeks later, Jane and I learned that she was pregnant with our first child, Elise.
And I knew what lesson I could draw from these brutal, brutal events.
At the end of the year, Jane and I travelled to Florida and Louisiana to rest and recuperate, spend time with well-loved friends. I waved goodbye to 2001 changed – a year that started with my nearly losing my life, and ended with a new life to love. Of all the turning points in my life, this was the most profound and fundamental.