Things you need to be able to read when you are 18

what to read whenYou’d think, after all that studying, that another reading activity was the last thing on an 18 year old’s mind… but the journey has only just begun. Here is a list of things I think an 18 year old should be able to read.

A map – Sometimes the TomTom, sat nav, iPhone etc. may not work, or it may mislead you. You are less likely to be lost if you can read a paper map. The only way to learn this is by doing it.

A recipe – Knowing how to cook and knowing how to read a recipe aren’t quite the same thing. If you learn to follow a recipe (though do start with a clear, tried and tested source, like Good Housekeeping or Delia Smith) then you will learn to cook.

A wine list – Yikes, you’re sitting in a posh restaurant with the potential companion of your dreams, you want to make a great impression. The sommelier hands you a wine list with a haughty expression. As he arches his eyebrows you are under pressure to pick a wine that will go with the meal; be enjoyed by both of you; and not so expensive you have to do the washing up for three weeks. The only real way to be comfortable about this is to learn about wine – a lifetime’s journey that can start in a supermarket. But, back to the restaurant … the simple option is to pick the “house wine” – generally it is less costly and generally it will taste fine because the restaurant’s reputation is vested in it. And as for whether to go for red or white, generally (again) red with meat and white with fish – but if you and your companion have a preference go with that – whatever the food and whatever the sommelier’s eyebrows do.

An invitation – Beyond Facebook and texting there are formal invitations with several things to look out for: date, time and place being the most straightforward. It is the call to action part you really have to watch out for, in particular RSVP. “Respondez s’il vous plait” means please reply, please tell me whether or not you are coming, please let me know that you have received this fabulous invitation. There are different formats for different kinds of reply – for example a formal wedding invitation reply has a traditional format which mirrors the invitation itself – email me for more information on this one because it is quite tricky.  And then there is the dress code: the risk of not reading this bit is that you are the only person at the party not in fancy dress, or – worse – the one dressed for a bbq when everyone else is in black tie.

Small Print – You don’t have to be a lawyer but, especially with things like travel insurance, it is worth reading through the small print to make sure it covers important eventualities, like needing to be helicoptered off a ski-slope

Proof Read – The problem with depending on spell check is neatly summed up in this poem:

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased to no.
Its letter perfect awl the way.
My checker told me sew.

The solution is to read through your text, and print it out and get someone else to read it for spelling and grammatical mistakes too: if you start the process anticipating there will be mistakes you probably won’t be disappointed.

Books – The more one reads the greater the likelihood of stumbling across the book that matters to us or that we need to read – whatever our age. I know it is very tempting – and from the best possible motives – to tell people what they should be reading: “On the Road”, “Crime and Punishment”, “Atlas Shrugged”, “The Magus”, “Feel the Fear and do it Anyway”, the Flashman books, anything by Patrick Leigh Fermor… see, I haven’t even started and you’ve probably thought of books I should have included. Better to share the titles and authors that give you pleasure, and give encouragement, space and time for reading.

While thinking about this Blog I quizzed a 21 year old on what he thought he should have been reading when he was 18. “Dunno”, he replied, “but I wish when I got to uni I’d had a better knowledge of the Smiths and Quentin Tarrantino films”. A 17 year old I ask wasn’t much interested in what he should be reading – though he did share his joke which made me chuckle: “Reading Festival – literary society disappointed”……


Summer time blues

Summer bluesIt’s a mad whirl; a rush of exciting things happening; a lingering anxiety of not enough time spent finishing off work; then a grand tidying up and a recovery of items not seen since mid-September; a kissing and hugging and back slapping; and the term has ended and the summer holidays have begun.

Especially for the public exam years’ students, there’s a real need to stop and take some time to sleep, and sleep…  Adolescents tend not to sleep enough (though it can often not appear that way) and so a bit of catch up is important.

People have different rituals at the beginning of the big holiday – I know some burn all their notes (incidentally this can be ill-advised since if you don’t get the grades you needed and have to re-sit you will have to re-visit those notes). It’s quite a good moment to dye your hair, or maybe experiment with a radical cut, or even get your ears pierced. Many go away on family holiday – or head off to somewhere in the Mediterranean with friends to cause untold anxiety for parents.

At some point the summer blues can appear – after all the build up it’s not surprising. While the freedom of no timetable is wonderful, the absence of schedule – whether it is normally embraced or challenged – can leave one with a sense of loss and lack of control, then the complaints start: “I’m bored”.

Being bored is wonderful – it means that there is a surfeit of energy seeking an outlet. It also means that your brain is as an empty cavern, a void, a vacuum – and nature abhors a vacuum. Being bored in the summer holidays can propel you into a whole world of discovery, experiment and adventure. This energy can of course be a negative force (that ole devil making work for idle hands type thing), but, with a small amount of benign supervision, it can be a force for development. Many of the world’s best inventions came about from someone lying flat on their backs, watching the clouds scud by and wondering “What shall I do today?”


What to do once you’ve done your best and you’re waiting for exam results…

Cat and cube40 years ago the Rubik’s cube was invented and has been an iconic part of our culture ever since: the perfect gift for those moments when you have no better ideas and the recipient likes “maths”; a source of fun party themes; a brain tease way to pass an idle moment. On the radio* someone with Asperger’s syndrome explained the appeal to him. He pointed out that for every combination the cube presented, a set number of known moves would turn each of the six faces to one colour.  And it would work each and every time. Ask a person the same question 10 times, he commented, and there could be 10 different answers and he never understood why.

The exam results and consequences algorithm is similar to a Rubik’s cube. There are a finite number of exam outcomes from fail through to A* and, initially, a finite number of options as a consequence. Ultimately, of course, the scope for our futures is only bounded by our imaginations – but the worry of exams makes us forget this.

Once you know the results, the Rubiks moves are clear, but the waiting is without doubt stressful. During study leave and the exam schedule itself there is the whole business of revision: stocking the fridge, finding lost calculators, pens and kit. Reading through prompt cards and worrying how anyone is going to be able to read the hand-writing. Then the exams finish and waiting begins. There are days you forget, days people ask about them so you’re reminded, days you don’t care, days you check on-line just incase the results are early or the examiners have gone on strike, days spent doing trade-offs in your head with the gods of exam results.

Happily there are several proven strategies to overcome stress. These include the following:

  • Listen to classical music. Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi have been shown to be effective, but I would also suggest Smetana’s Vltara movement from Mā vlast which follows the route of a river to the sea**.
  • Spend at least half an hour outside in the sunshine soaking up the rays, less than half an hour can leave you feeling short-changed.
  • Laugh. Watch something funny, remember silly moments, share a daft story – at the very least try and fake a smile which may encourage others to laughter…
  • Hang out with the dog or cat, they will calm you down. Hugging is good too.

And when September comes and the results, for better or worse are in – the young people will move on to their next adventure and all the adults who have been doing the worrying and stressing and fretting can breathe calmly again.


*The Rubik’s cube at 40

**Smetana’s fabulous music:


Thinking beyond gender

QE 1Remember Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady” querying “Why can’t a woman be more like a man… Why is thinking something women never do?
And why is logic never even tried?
Straightening up their hair is all they ever do.
Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside”

I appreciate that there is a lot of research showing that, in general, men and women think differently – they perceive space differently, they are able to handle multiple tasks in different ways, and they can exhibit different levels of empathy. A consequence is the expectation of gender specifc roles – women empathise ergo they go into Human Resources, men like making things so they become engineers …and, so far, more or less they have (70% of HR professionals are women and 94% of engineers are men). Helpful? No! because – to stick with my examples – in the 21st century both HR and engineering need new approaches to problem solving. HR increasingly is asked to provide a more strategic input to the direction of organisations. As natural resources become more precious engineers are faced with the need to use better husbandry and less profligacy (good housekeeping).

Given that not all people of either gender think in the same way – like everything it is a bell curve and depends on circumstance – I’d like to suggest new ways of describing different ways of thinking and behaving in order to encourage people to be confident in themselves and able to make the most of diverse approaches.

Thinking styles might be called Spiral and Linear.

Spiral thought goes round and round, amassing new notions, facts and interpretations with each rotation. Committee thinking is spiral – going round a group looking for compromise and consensus; teaching young children is spiral – “Now say thank you… now say thank you… now what to do you say?”. Learning maths is a spiral process, you go back to the principles again and again – adding complexity as understanding evolves. Managers use spiral thinking to make the most of their staff, assessing their performance and monitoring their skills.

Leaders, however, use linear thinking – identifying an objective and defining the strategy required to achieve it. Maths problems are solved in a linear way. Good project managers are linear thinkers – able to anticipate and allow for a sequence of events – so are film directors.

Some feedback on this notion has suggested that it might be a bit simplistic – but I don’t mean to suggest that women=spiral and men=linear thinkers, rather that by moving away from gender specific thinking there is less societal constraint and expectation. In the NHS, CVs presented for consideration have any reference to gender removed – simply a code number. This strikes me as very good practice – unconscious bias shouldn’t be a factor in choosing who to interview; if only we ourselves could sometimes think beyond the hard-wiring of gender.

Queen Elizabeth I* said, in 1588 infront of her troops at Tilbury just before the Spanish Armada arrived, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too” – and by either male or female standards she was an epic monarch. Surely that’s the potential that could be realised by valuing and exploring different thinking styles rather than gender specific brains.

*Helpfully she is also quoted as saying “Men fight wars. Women win them.” ― Elizabeth I Tudor

End of exams in sight? Time to get tough on kids!

children digging“It’s the worry and not knowing if I’m saying the right thing and not understanding the answers to straightforward questions” fretted a woman I overheard in Next the other day. “I know, I know” replied her friend, “but when they’ve finished their GCSEs I’m sure things will calm down”.  Exam season is hard on everyone, so many expectations ride on the outcomes. Teachers and parents want the young people to do their best, and the exam candidates not only have that cumulative worry weighing them down, but may also have suddenly realised that they simply haven’t done enough work over the course of the syllabus. Too bad, the term will end, the sun will come out and everyone can relax.

Relax a bit, I would suggest, and then get a bit tough. The experiences and adventures of the summer holidays, particularly once you are about 15, lay the foundations for what you can do in the future. Some young people seem to understand this intuitively – others need a persuasive nudge. So before they get too cosy at home, open the door and send them back out.

Let’s put to one side certain elements of concern. I am not suggesting child labour; this is not removing any rights of a child to play; health and safety principles – aka common sense – should be applied; if you wouldn’t want to work with a particular individual for whatever reason don’t encourage your child to do so. Money making isn’t the main point of this kind of work – if a job has been done well then getting paid is a good reward, but the experience also has value.

The opportunity for young people to work at something should be seized with both hands. If there is a summer job that they could do, encourage them to apply for it and get stuck in. If such a job can’t be found, depending on the person’s age, there are so many other things that can be done, for example: look after a neighbour’s pets / garden while they are away; mow the lawn for someone else; walk their dog; lend a hand at a fete (preferably at the setting up and tidying away stages as well as the middle, fun, bit); pick soft fruit; tidy up a garden shed…. one chap I know used to be paid by his dad for killing wasps round the bins at his father’s pub.

I would urge anyone who can to offer a young person a chance to do something – doing something simple, straightforward and achievable is how we all learn to work. It teaches us to arrive at the right place with the right kit. It teaches us that all tasks can have integrity and value, that many things are boring but have to be done. And it shows us that to have a sense of satisfaction in a job well done you don’t need super-top grades in written exams.

An open door and a sense of adventure are the perfect way to start to find out about the world beyond your school and family. Many school leavers go travelling – but I would suggest it is a much more pleasant experience if you have built up to it by going roaming when you were in your early teens.  Simply take a train trip somewhere new – without any “grown-ups”. And if the motivation to go adventuring isn’t quite fully functioning yet may I suggest parents make homelife very, very boring, turn off the TV and Wi-Fi and lose all the chargers.


*The picture shows two children planting spring bulbs with spoons – a job worth doing, though it might have been easier if there had been some proper tools…

The Importance of Cutlery Control

cutlery controlPeople just can’t help making snap judgements based on first impressions – the psychologists will tell you that we are hard-wired to do it and it takes lots of extra effort to overcome initial prejudice. The idea of consciously using body language to express confidence is now mainstream (for example try the Power Pose to get emotionally strong) – and not much different from being told not to slouch and to stand tall.  We all know that a firm handshake, clear eye contact and a friendly smile will give the people we meet confidence in us – and that is really important because it gives us a chance to connect and share ideas.

Things can go horribly wrong, however, when it comes to sharing a meal. I’d like to make a distinction between general good table manners (listening to other people, chewing with your mouth shut, not stealing your dining companion’s last garlic prawn) and cutlery control. Most people have some notion of being polite through a meal – but when it comes to managing their knife and fork, it’s a different story.

Holding your cutlery in a way that suggests you are not quite in control can leave a really terrible impression – and mean that people are left commenting on your table manners, not you and what you said. Some might think that this kind of skill is old fashioned, culturally biased or even elitist – after all very few people describe someone in terms of their high quality table manners. At the most basic level, however, stabbing, waving, spraying and sawing with cutlery can pose your companions a health and safety risk – eye ball kebab anyone? So even if you use all the positive body language tips in the world, if your cutlery is out of control that is what people will remember.

Practical Advice for using cutlery

  • Hold the fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand. Have four fingers on top of the handle and your thumb underneath – not clenched like a baby holding a small digging tool with a fist.
  • Sitting upright, with good posture, the food should be managed on the plate: use the fork to hold down the food while the knife cuts through it, put a bite sized piece on the fork on the plate and then make a smooth journey to your mouth – no stacking in the air, no wild waving of food stacked on fork, no chewing or licking from the fork like it was a lollipop – then return the fork to the plate. The knife remains at plate level.
  • Put your cutlery down while you chew / drink / chat. Never, ever put a knife in your mouth.
  • (If there’s lots of cutlery start from the outside and work in)


Like all skills there are levels of nuance which can also be mastered – for example, tipping a soup bowl away and a pudding bowl towards you to get the last morsel; not buttering the whole piece of bread on your side plate in one go but doing it mouthful by mouthful at a time; not leaving the table to go to the lavatory in the middle of a course; and, one of my favourite but particularly unhelpful pieces of courtesy, not asking for something – like the water or pepper – but asking your companion if they would like whatever it was you wanted in the hopes that they will reply “No, thank you, but would you?”. Generally at this point the other person hasn’t come across this convention so you are left thirsty or needing something – and you may be tempted to make a fuss, which wouldn’t be nice manners at all.


Un-picking job descriptions

I’m the girl that makes the thing*

That drills the hole

That holds the spring

That drives the rod

That turns the know

That works the thing-ummy bob

I’m the girl that makes the thing

That holds the oil

That takes the shank

That moves the crank

That works the thing-ummy bob

Job descriptions – those trick pieces of prose which, combined with the person specification, create the co-ordinates for find a perfect candidate for a specific role.  The girl in the Gracie Fields song probably had a whole lot of personality traits that extended beyond her technical abilities. She’s part of a team drilling, holding, driving and turning different components. She must be able to work with other people while also focussing on achieving high quality outcomes from her specific task. Given that the song was performed in 1942 she should also have had a positive outlook and buckets of optimism (the second part of the song title is “… that’s going to win the war”.) She also probably didn’t have to leap through too many hoops to get the job.

Nowadays HR departments and line managers spend a lot of time honing the job description and, while there is a tendency to ask the person to be all things to all people, it’s really worth looking at the detail. Work out what the most important features of the job are and then be sure that you put them towards the beginning of your CV or covering letter. Don’t make the recruiter have to dig too deep to find a reason to interview you.


*Written by Heneker Thompson, performed by Gracie Fields

Image of thing-ummy bob from