Playing your hand right

moonrakerFinding the perfect job – is it a matter of skills, qualifications, connections, perseverance, presentation or luck?  As ever, probably a combination of all these elements. Passion, however is what is concerning many employability specialists at the moment – while employers say they are looking for candidates who are “passionate” about their company / role, many young people don’t have a clear notion of what kind of job might interest them – let alone stir them to passion.  There is no easy solution to this. It takes time, and maturity, to really know what matters most in terms of having passion for a career. Sometimes just getting and keeping a good enough job is good enough.

I am enjoying an analogy with playing bridge.  This works at several levels, however – if you’re not a bridge player – remove from your mind the idea that it is all about ancient women with rheumy eyes playing while wrapped in lilac shawls. Certainly they play, but their appearance can just be a clever disguise for killer instincts. Because bridge is a game of planning, negotiation, strategy and patience. The game has its origins in 16th century whist, the element of contract coming in the 19th century when the game was known as Biritch (Russian whist). During the early 20th century the scoring system was refined, and, though there are now several systems of play, the game as we now know it was fixed. Played with four people the objective is to win by taking the most number of tricks with the 13 cards you are dealt. At the beginning of the game you look at your cards and analyse where you have strengths, for example the Ace, King or Queen and where you have length, for example 5 more cards in the same suit. A trump suit is decided, either through a bidding process in bridge or by prior agreement in whist – this suit is the one that can take any trick, literally trumping it.

For job seekers the equivalent is about considering where you have strengths, such as practical skills and qualifications; and lengths like abilities and characteristics or personality traits such as agreeable-ness or resilience. Trump will vary from job to job, it might be simple like having a driving licence or something more arbitrary, like having had experience of a particular software package. ‘No Trump’ is also an option – and in bridge counts for more points than the suits. Then you have to work out the best way of playing your hand, acknowledging that no one gets dealt the full 52 cards in one round ever.

Some people do appear to have it all – which can be disheartening for the rest of us. In these moments it might be worth remembering the notorious game called the Duke of Cumberland’s hand. This promises everything and – once played – delivers nothing. The same game is played out in Ian Fleming’s book “Moonraker” by James Bond with Hugo Drax in the position of the Duke of Cumberland. The duke, with A, K, Q and J of hearts, A,K, and Q of spades, A and K of diamonds and K, J, 9 and 7 of clubs must have thought he couldn’t lose – and gambled accordingly. Trumps were clubs and as the first 7 was played by the duke his fate was sealed and he didn’t win a single trick. There’s a link attached to show how badly the game went wrong for him.duke of cumberland's bridge hand

And from my analogy: good enough can be good enough – and learning to play bridge is a skill worth acquiring.


Crucial cuisine skills for Freshers

fried eggThere appears to be very little correlation between intelligence demonstrated in exam results achieved and practical skills. As this year’s Freshers begin to get ready to start at universities and colleges up and down the country, there is still a little time to make sure they have the basics when it comes to cooking.  In a perfect world all students would head off with a well-rehearsed repertoire of at least 5 core dishes encompassing the main cooking techniques and providing a balanced, economically viable, diet.  In the real world many students seem to miss this learning opportunity. They will probably pick up the skills quite quickly, but over the years I have developed a few crucial cuisine tips that may be worth passing on in lieu of the full Masterchef workout.

In the spirit of simplicity I would like to suggest minimal tools: a sharp knife, a small saucepan, a frying pan, a bowl, a spoon and a mug will get most people started.



Everything can get so frenzied and busy or, occasionally, so miserable that students can go for days without eating a proper meal. Say you wake up at 11.30ish, then go to a faculty activity to “meet the team”, then from 2.30pm wander around trying the find the people you met yesterday till 3.45pm then go and sign on for the library, then meet some people for an ad hoc kick around a 6ish, then have an early evening drink, then a bit of a kebab, then a bit of a dance, then it’s 2.30am and bed and… so it goes. No one can sustain this level of activity without fuel: so eat meals, preferably vaguely at mealtimes, preferably of a broadly healthy nature, and preferably in company.



An unbelievably useful skill – not only can you boil water to make tea, coffee and hot chocolate (which, when you make them for someone else immediately makes you a lovely, friendly person people want to be with), but once you’ve got that pan of water rolling food options can evolve from pot-noodles to cup-a-soup, to noodles, to pasta, to eggs (at school a friend memorably boiled eggs in the 6th form kettle – somehow and miraculously they never exploded). Small caveat: boiling water can burn so be cautious.



Different technique to boiling requiring more heat control and different equipment (pan not pot) – but once you can fry 3 rashers of bacon and an egg anything will seem achievable including a much more protein-rich diet (steak, turkey steaks, salmon steaks – if you are a keen sports person “teins” will be high on your list of desirable food types and by frying with minimal oil you can be consuming them rapidly for a fraction of the cost of eating out or buying weird shakes.) Another caveat: hot oil burns, so watch out – and repeated frying without any wiping and cleaning of surfaces will result in grime and dirt around the cooker.



Most food sold in supermarkets comes with cooking instructions and, even, recipes.

I know these tips may be considered very basic – but the tales of students struggling when they find themselves out of context are myriad. One of my favourite concerns two foreign gentlemen doing engineering in America. Put together as roommates, the Frenchman and Indian decided to alternate cooking chores. On the first evening the Indian wanted to cook dhal. But, having come from a fairly privileged background in Delhi, he had never actually cooked at all, ever. After a dozen long distance (and time zone challenged) calls to his mother and the lady who cooked for the family, he was able to produce a modest dhal dish.  His French companion was most impressed and, as they had agreed did the washing up for the meal. The next night the French gentleman, after several similar calls to his mother, produced a magnificent chicken casserole. He then went to bed leaving my Indian friend with the washing up. Despite the battered nature of the pots, he set to with grim determination and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. It was only in the morning that he discovered that his efforts had resulted in a pan devoid of any Teflon coating – he had scrubbed the whole lot off.

Hurrah for MATHS!

oak-rootsIt’s not rocket science to understand that maths skills are at the root of success in business, finance, building, science, banking, medicine, upholstery, plumbing, football league tables… and rockets. And, having done training sessions with adults working at an insurance company who couldn’t calculate percentages, it’s easy to understand why the government is keen to support Prof Alison Wolf’s recommendation that students keep studying maths till they reach a level equivalent to a C at GCSE.  As a nation we don’t seem to be very good at numbers. It’s also easy to understand why so many parents and students must be sinking their heads in their hands and groaning.

Most people, at some time, experience the miserable mist of incomprehension that falls over one when asked, for example to describe the two points where a given parabola intersects the x and y axes; or forced to try and imagine what a nifty way of finding a value for cos might be when you have values for sin and tan (and really, why would any one care?).  It’s like a marathon runner hitting “the wall”.

Back in Scotland in the 1970’s they had O Grades and I remember doing one in arithmetic – I think they were compulsory. We all passed, though not everyone passed the mathematics O Grade. It meant we could all add, subtract, multiply and divide. We could also do percentages and compound interest. It was a jolly sensible exam that made sure you could work out useful things – like how much curtain fabric was needed for a pair of bedroom curtains, or how much income you could expect from your savings account.

I think this sort of maths, “Household Maths” or “Tesco Maths”, which helps people work out the real value of a special offer, measure things and understand consumer issues, is excellent.  Everybody should be able to work out whether 20 washes from a bottle of Persil concentrate for £6.38 is better or worse value than 32 washes of multi-colour gels from Ariel for £9.25. (The answer is Yes: Persil would come in at 0.319p per wash and Ariel at 0.289p per wash, however if one is in pre-measured gels amounts rather than pouring it into the little drawer, the gels are probably better value because we tend to over-fill, all calculations need to be reviewed if you live in a hard water area…)

This sort of maths can be extended to include food, eg how many bowls of lentil soup can you make from 200g lentils, 2 slices streaky bacon, 3 carrots, 2 onions and a stock cube, and what does it cost compared to buying a carton of ready-made stuff from Covent Garden soups. It does occur to me that many adults do these calculations automatically and accurately while protesting that they can’t “do” maths. Most children have an innate understanding of pattern and division too, witness the three year old lining up his toy cars in series; or the outrage of the 4 year old not given a fair slice of cake.  Once you can do these kinds of calculations you will have mastered some useful life skills, though if you then move beyond arithmetic to geometry and algebra the beauty really begins. While students are still in formal education there is opportunity to continue to support their learning at whatever level they can manage, we shouldn’t give up.

The obstacles, and misery, have come about in part because of rubbish PR on the part of maths. There is also a tendency to perceive numeracy skills as being too geek-like to be cool. Somehow parents and grandparents find it easy to excuse poor results in maths. “Oh, don’t worry – all our family are rubbish at maths” you hear parents of Year 1 children say as their child has become confused with numbers up to 10. Or “They’ve changed the way they do maths – it doesn’t make sense to anyone anymore, they have ‘bus shelters’ and ‘chunking’, that’s not proper maths” from Year 5 parents. Or, to a girl “Aren’t you clever doing maths and physics, girls aren’t normally any good with numbers”.

So, the Real Life Skills Maths Plan has three components:

1)      Really support our children learning arithmetic right from an early age – bribe them to learn their tables; nag them to do their maths homework; let them weigh, measure and estimate everyday things everyday.*

2)      Be positive about maths and stop using the language of inherited incompetence – just because a child’s father or mother couldn’t multiply doesn’t mean the child won’t ever be able to.

3)      Have confidence that maths – the abstract science of number, quantity and space – is beautiful, creative and philosophically rewarding. It’s magic.


*My mother pointed out recently that when she was a child not only did many families do their housekeeping with a system of jam jars where people literally divided their income for things like rent, food and utilities, they also did it all in base 12 (pounds, shillings and pence).