Kindness: a bigger part of the solution?

I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. And podcasts. And the radio. In fact, anything that transports, entertains or educates me whilst I sit quietly and listen – all without the arduous task of turning a page. It feels deliciously indulgent and escapist to concentrate on just one thing at a time. And you really can do it anywhere. In the car driving to a meeting. On your phone as you get the car washed. In the bathroom whilst hiding from your offspring. The possibilities are truly endless.

Another thing of which I’m a huge fan is recommendations. By anyone. The more eclectic the better. Not only do you discover real gems that otherwise would be hidden from view, but you also get an insight into your friends, family and co-workers, which is both voyeuristic and fascinating.

So, in my audiobook history, I’ve listened to Klaus Schwab expound his theories on the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ and the impact of emerging technologies on the very fabric of society. And then neatly pirouetted into the world of Hogwarts, muggles and all things magically mysterious.

A recent audio indulgence was ‘Born Lippy’, written and narrated by Jo Brand. I’ve always loved Jo’s sense of humour and I thoroughly enjoyed her guide on ‘how to do female’, but there was one phrase that she used which has kept running through my mind since I heard the final full stop:

“The creation of the NHS was an attempt to hard wire kindness into society.”

Of all the descriptions – complimentary and otherwise – that have been used to describe the sixth largest employer in the world today (one behind McDonald’s – ironically), this epitaph moves me the most.

The lofty aim of the NHS’s creators, perhaps lost in the mists of time, of doing good on such a mammoth scale is awe-inspiring. And no matter your political persuasion, stance on Brexit or whether you are north or south of the Watford Gap, the desire to be kind to our fellow man – or woman – surely resonates within us all?

But is kindness valued in today’s world? In business? At school? In society? Is it seen as the preserve of the unambitious? A quality belonging to those who lack the focus – or ruthlessness – to forge ahead and Get The Job Done?

And is it also seen as a trait that’s predominantly female?

Kindness to me has always been a watchword. A North Star if you will. In fact, the only advice my beloved Gran gave me on the eve of my wedding was ‘Always be kind to each other.’ After nearly fifty years of marriage, her wisdom and experience on how to remain happily married came down to one word: kindness.

Yet I – and other women I know – have often had the ‘kindness’ accolade thrown at them in business as a bittersweet, backhanded compliment that actually undermines, rather than uplifts.

One episode of kindness-calling (if that’s a thing?!) that still lingers took place during a leaving speech delivered by my manager. It was my last day at a company where, on the back of my performance, I had been promoted several times over the years, but the final epitaph on leaving was that ‘I had been kind.’ None of the achievements realised, targets hit or projects delivered were recognised or celebrated. And this was all the more galling given a male colleague leaving a few weeks before had been given a ‘Big Red Book’ in true This Is Your Life style, full of all his splendid achievements and fabulous accolades.

But I was leaving. So I let it go. Mainly because I was hugely pregnant at the time and it would have been a bit messy if I had hung around much longer.

However, another recent audiobook discovery rekindled this lingering sense of annoyance – ‘The Mother of All Jobs’ by Christine Armstrong.

(Apologies for the next few paragraphs – I’m going to hop up onto my soap box. Enjoy.)

For anyone who has not read this book, please do so. Immediately.

Whether you are a mother. Or a father. Or a Gen-Xer. Or a boss. Or a grandparent. Or a millennial. In fact, any member of the human race who comes into contact with other members of the human race should Read This Book. Please. This diktat – a bit like the National Health Service Act of 1946 – is my attempt to hard wire kindness into our generation.

Christine Armstrong sets her stall out from the beginning – her book is about how work is eating family life – and she focuses on (officially) the most stressed group at work: professional women aged between 35 and 44. Whilst she herself acknowledges that this could lead the reader to conclude that the book only “explores first-world, middle-class problems that impact only those lucky bitches with ‘career’ jobs and kids”, she goes on to make a very important point:

“If we truly want to understand why we don’t have more gender diversity at the senior / decision-making levels of business and politics, then we have to fully understand what drives women to step back or out of work before they are in a position to make more of an impact.”

She tackles the various stages of adult life, using interviews interspersed with assorted pieces of research and statistics to tell the very real story about having a ‘professional’ career’ in modern day Britain. And with whichever gender you identify, I guarantee everyone will recognise some of the pitfalls she discusses, as well as the consequences of falling into those career traps.

(Am hopping off the soap box now. Well done for sticking with me.)

The book offers both true insight and basic common sense throughout, as well as providing practical suggestions on how individuals might address their own specific challenges.

Whilst we don’t yet have the solution for how we, as a society, find a way to have enriching and connected family lives in conjunction with deeply satisfying careers, I do wonder whether a great big dollop of kindness would actually go a long way to make things better – not just for working parents or women in business – but for civilisation as a whole.

And when you understand another person’s situation or position, it is so much easier to be kind. Christine’s book, with its real-life stories of people striving for that mythical ‘work/life balance’ adroitly illustrated the many other ‘sides of the coin’ that, if I’m being honest, I’d never considered: teachers picking up the pieces of absent parenting; divorced parents juggling a sometimes overwhelming emotional load; Millennials desperately trying get a foot on the first breath-takingly high rung of the property ladder. And made it me think about how I treated people around me. How I could be kinder. The difference that a little dollop of kindness might make.

So nearly ten years down the line, I’ve come to see my boss’s farewell speech as – maybe – the accolade it was meant to be. I have no idea how much kindness is enough to make a difference. And I don’t care. A little is more than none, so I’m going to start there.