Look Around. Calm. Relax.

Blain’s Morning Porridge 29th Jan 2021: Look Around. Calm. Relax. 

“Lokah samastha sukhino bhavanthu.”

It’s Friday, and I get to go a bit off-piste. This morning the Porridge is very different – looking at how we are rather than what is happening. Over the weekend I’m going to try and work out exactly what the mob-markets in the US mean – it’ more than just insignificant noise. But meantime… it’s time to step back… relax, stop worrying and …

Breathe deep… 

She-who-is-Mrs-Blain and I are currently sharing a proper office in our village while our house is being redeveloped. It’s fascinating and its hard. But, its working very well despite being together 24/7.  We are careful not to disturb each other but try to complement one another. We both think we’re more productive and more focused. Not doing the commute to London means I don’t face a daily battle with Notwork Rail and Southern Railpark, which has greatly improved my blood pressure.

We are strictly confidential about anything we overhear – we have each spent a fortune on noise cancelling headphones. That said, I don’t think she would be particularly interested in any of the deals I am working on.

On the other hand, I actually stopped and listened to a presentation she gave yesterday to her colleagues within a London fund management company.

She wasn’t berating anyone for anything, or demanding action on particular projects or delivery of promised goals.

She simply stopped the planet for a few moments.

She talked clearly, honestly and lucidly about the current work, rest and play situation as lockdowns continue and the pandemic stalks the land. She talked about communication, how to listen and how to be kind. She was open and transparent – and very brave to say all the things that scare so many of us: “Am I coping? Do I look strong? If I look weak, am I at risk?”

This morning I’m going to largely ignore the ongoing market madness, and write about the many issues She-Who-Is-Mrs-Blain talked about yesterday. From the mightiest hedge fund magnate to the recently graduated interns who are on the Morning Porridge distribution list, I hope the following might help put things into some sort of perspective and maybe even help a few readers to recognise problems.

Be Happy for What You Have

She-who-is-Mrs-Blain started by explaining how lucky she considers herself – an eternal optimist with a great job, a rewarding career, living in a nice house with plenty of space and companionship (by which, I guess, she includes me.) She considers herself very fortunate and thankful for what’s she’s got. It may sound trite, comfortable and terribly middle-class, but like every single one of us she suffers from doubts and these are magnified at present. She is willing to admit and talk about them.

Think of Others 

Increasingly it embarrasses her that others are having to cope with this crisis with far less in terms of resources and support. She has become acutely conscious on how people are responding and handling to the situation. Some are doing well. Some are not. Some try to help. Some focus on themselves. People are different.

She’s watched her stepchildren struggle (successfully) to adapt in new jobs where they have very little inter-reaction with any other staff, or even meeting their managers. In the absence of social and work contact many young people struggle to gauge how they are performing. They lack the traditional mentoring that underlay the careers most us now in senior positions enjoyed and learnt from. They won’t have traditional career paths. Perhaps they are learning more about responsibility and taking decisions for themselves, or maybe they need more and better guidance. How do we help them if they are too nervous, scared or feel unable to ask?

She is particularly concerned about her friends. Many of them are single and a now suffering intense loneliness – especially at the weekends. She wonders if she is doing enough to support them with phone calls. Should she be baking them cakes? She lost her bestie girlfriend a few months ago to cancer and is acutely aware of the sense of loss so many now feel. She wants to go hug all her friends and is saddened she can’t.

Face up you your worries

She is suffering her own problems. We both have developed insomnia – waking up in the middle of night after increasingly weird and freaky dreams. Reading up on these, and talking to medical chums, she’s aware millions of us have similar issues. It’s a “fight or flight” response because we are subconsciously perceiving ourselves and our families as under threat. (We are also unsettled because of the work on the house and living in a rental.)

It’s not a big leap for these fears and threats to grow, overwhelm and dominate us – making us ill. It’s not a sign of weakness. Mental illness is very real and can be addressed.  It needs to be recognised. It needs support to be addressed.

We are all coping with change. Trying to reprogramme ourselves after spending decades commuting into offices each morning, while being unable to physically help family and friends, and adapting to new methods, are all drivers of stress. The structures of our lives are changing in ways we can’t control and that is stressful. We all share it.

Be Concerned, Kind and Forgiving

It feels like there is so much we have all to worry about. We both have aging parents we haven’t seen for a year. We are worried about her sibling’s health. She is concerned how depressed some of our nearest and dearest sound on the phone and the increasing struggles many people are finding with all kinds of personal issues and anger, magnified during this challenge.

It’s difficult not to be shocked at some of the hypocrisy around us – old folk happily partying together while complaining about students spreading the disease. Or young people unhappy they’d had their life “experiences” stolen – while we worry about ever seeing our parents again.

Perspective is everything.

We’ve learnt a lot about people – and not of all it is attractive. People have a remarkable capacity to do silly things, and when they are discovered few apologise. Most adopt fight and flight strategies that make it worse.

I get angry, but She-who-is-Mrs-Blain’s response has been calm, back off, wait and remind others the sun will still come up, it’s not so important, there is nothing to be gained by anger, and that forgiveness and forgetting is usually the best course. She has a simple mantra: be kind and not righteous.

Remove Negativity

She is trying to remove negativity from the day. She cracks jokes about not watching the BBC news anymore (but quietly acknowledges Laura Doomsberg is just doing her job). She is looking for other news channels and different perspectives – while being very aware of fake news. She finds the Torygraph’s “Planet Normal” podcast a great listen. She walks away from responding to anything on social media about Covid because it so quickly becomes toxic.

Structure the Day, Exercise, Relax and Eat Well

She is trying to build new structure into her day. When she gets up, she makes a great coffee and then does some stretching. (I get up earlier, do some yoga (yep! bet that surprised you!), knock back some expresso-ultra, and then walk to the office writing the Porridge in my head.)

In our office we try to stand and not sit all day. We have a homemade soup for lunch. In the evenings we cook from fresh ingredients – blessed by access to a fantastic local butcher, an excellent fish shop and weekly deliveries of organic vegetables. (We are so middle class and spoilt – the Co-op provides everything else we need.) It’s all very pastoral… I am so excited about getting back to London some day…!

We’ve allowed ourselves to get hooked on TV dramas – but have a rule of one episode an evening. Bridgerton made us giggle, It’s a Sin is wonderful, and The Serpent just too darn good. If she wakes in the middle of the night, she’s using Calm or Sleepy Stories to ease her back into rest.

Feel Good by Doing Good

We try to make ourselves feel good. Doing the Charity Walks for Walking with the Wounded was really rewarding. We’re taking the view Aesop originally evoked: “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” What we make think is trivial may be super special to others, she says.

Be Aware of Work Pressure

When it comes to work she finds herself getting anxious. Is she doing enough? Is she doing the right thing? Is she meeting performance expectations? Is she working hard enough? If she is, who is noticing? If she’s not available on-line 24/7 will co-workers think she is slacking? Is it just her or is everyone so paranoid about how the pandemic changes perceptions?

Coping in the new workspace and online environment is not easy. Learning to use digital technology is an art form rather than hardwired engineering. Stressing about Teams, Zoom or Skype is pointless. Each has pros and cons – but they are the tools we need to learn to use and its worth getting on top of them.

Communication over digital platforms in meetings is not so simple as in the office. Everyone needs an opportunity to give input. Its critical not to assume that because someone isn’t vocal they just don’t have anything valuable to say. People think and process things at different speeds. Some people are more reserved. Because of the digital format it’s all too easy for a few people to dominate calls while others can’t get a word in.

Too many people in meetings are on “Transmit” all the time. It’s much more important to listen – and since its more difficult to pick up the non-verbal cues you would get in face-to-face meetings, the art of listening has become even more critical. It is very, very ease to alienate people if you aren’t listening.

When it is difficult to communicate, nothing solves it faster than just picking up the phone to speak to a client, contact or colleague. They will probably be hoping for human contact as much as you.

We are all in this together

Without the camaraderie of the office its difficult. We are social animals. If everyone understands the reality – that we are all in this together, then it makes it easier. We are all in the same boat so learn: listen, be kind to others and yourselves and smile. This will end.

…. OMmmmmmm

Not a typical Morning Porridge, but I hope it helps. Thanks to She-Who-is-Mrs-Blain for taking a few moments to make this very strange and different world an easier place to understand..

Back in the machine – Five stories to read today:

BBerg – Why Europe’s Vaccine Politics Are Worse Than America’s

BBerg – Market Madness Puts Pension Funds in a Risky Bind

FT – Hedge funds rush to get to grips with retail message boards

WSJ – Wall Street Hedge Funds Stung by Market Turmoil

ZH – GME Soars 75% After-hours, Erases Losses After Liquidity Constrained Robinhood Lifts Trading Ban

Out of time, back to the day-job, and have a great weekend…

Bill Blain

Shard Capital