As part of my True Strength project, I’m featuring interviews that dig deep into how people succeed and I was delighted to interview Sam Meikle and provide a space for Sam to share her story. The interview has lots of insights into how Sam succeeds; about strengths, weaknesses, mindset, and resilience. To listen to the interview, simply click ‘play’ on the audio player below or you can read the transcript further down the page. You can find previous podcasts and details of how to subscribe on our podcast page.
CliftonStrengths (TM) Dominant Talent Themes: Positivity, Woo, Developer, Communication, Strategic, Activator, Empathy, Futuristic, Achiever, Arranger
Hi this is Ian Pettigrew and welcome to the Kingfisher Coaching True Strength Podcast today featuring Sam Meikle of Spark the Difference. Hello Sam.
Hello, how are you?
I’m really good thank you and, I know the answer to this, how are you?
I’m good. I have a head full of cold so I apologise to your listeners that I’m sounding snuffly and like a pack a day smoker but I am high energy and good.
Ah, it’s lovely to be with you and we’ve met before but it’s brilliant to see you again. So, I want to start by asking more about what you do. What do you do?
This is a really tricky question for me! I think what I do now is very different to what I have done in the past. So I came from an IT background and a general business degree but I think the thread that links it altogether is I listen to people and I was thinking, it’s an interesting question in nature versus nurture because my parents called me Samantha which means The Listener and it’s like were they foreshadowing that I was going to be a listener or is it just the circumstances of my life? So I do a lot of work holding space for people to connect with what’s important to them, connect with what’s important to other people so that we can make decisions and ideas happen together. At the moment that’s through Spark the Difference which you said. So I started that a couple years ago, mainly I think out of the frustration that we missed opportunities to connect with what I call humanity in interactions of care. So things can be very clinical and technological but where is that human to human connection interaction?
And so what does the work of Spark the Difference look like in practice?
It’s varied and wonderful and lots of different things!
Give us some examples.
The main themes that we do, so we work with clinical commissioning groups, CCG’s, general practice and GP configurations and NHS trusts as well and have just started to work with local councils, looking at social care, and what we’re trying to do is help decision-makers connect with what matters to people who give and receive care on the front line. So I think sometimes we think about commissioning within constraints of regulation and finance and process and policy ,which are all necessary, but I really want to approach how do we go deeper to what matters to people about their experiences of care, what are they looking for from that care interaction, and for the people who are giving care, why do they show up every day, how do they reconnect with that inner spark that was there 10 or 15 years ago and how are we making that, I use the word ‘joyous’ and some people find that funny that how can you have a joyful care interaction, but how do people bring their best selves to that experience?
So I expect you might have answered part of this question because you’ve just used the word ‘spark’ but why did you call it Spark the Difference, how did you come up with the name?
I was sitting on a beach in Greece, as you do, and I was working through, Danielle LaPort and a series of steps called ‘The Core Desired Feelings’ and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with life and I wasn’t sure how I wanted to show up in the world, and so she takes you through these exercises where you go ‘how do you want to feel ‘, ‘how do you want to be’ and you kind of write all that, and then you whittle it down to 3-5 core desired feelings. So I wrote mine and ‘sparking’ came up for me and so in my core desired feelings I want to be sparking, strong, tranquil, true and present, and for me calling it Spark the Difference was embodying all of that and reminding me, this is how I want to show up and hopefully by doing that I’m not saying ‘do as I say’, it’s ‘do as I do’. So for me that was what the humanity bit was.
Excellent! I’m going to ask a loaded question now because I know the answer but, what else do you do in your spare time as well outside of Spark the Difference because there is something else that you are well known for?
Thank you! So, it’s a podcast and it’s called About Death.
And, what is it about?
It’s how do we think, feel and talk about death and it’s come from both a professional perspective and a personal perspective that in my work through Spark the Difference I noticed often clinicians and patients, death can be the elephant in the room, and I was doing a piece of work in West London where we were looking at an end of life pathway and we worked with patients in their homes and in the community with rehabilitative staff, and the biggest challenge for everyone was that they didn’t know how to talk about ‘it’ and in many of the interviews they kept saying ‘it’, they couldn’t even say the word dying or death, and I realised in my life I don’t ever talk about ‘it’. I’m not sure we are educated about that or have these experiences, and I shared it in the podcast. I had a very close friend who I didn’t know that she was terminally ill and I only found out after she had died and that was really shocking for me, that someone who had supported me so much in my life, I wasn’t there for her, I didn’t know, and she supported me through a divorce and changing jobs and all of this trauma in my life, and yet I couldn’t do that for her. So it started this journey of who talks about it well, what do they say when and to who and if they don’t talk about it, why not and what maybe they wish they could’ve said, and I think the big thing that’s come out is there is no right way for everyone, it’s going to be different. So through the podcast I hope that people can listen to bits, say ‘this resonates for me’, ‘actually Sam that’s completely left field’, ‘I don’t get that at all, that’s not me’ and that’s fine because it could be for someone else and it might be what they need to hear in that moment.
Right, you are a really interesting person and I think what you do is interesting. If I was structuring my contacts this way, I’d file you under interesting or really interesting because of the things you do with Spark the Difference and with your About Death podcast. What’s your journey been, how did you end up doing both those things? How did you get to here?
I don’t really know!
Well where did you start in terms of after school and early career?
Looking back lately in life, everything’s connected isn’t it, so I try and follow my curiosity for things so you might call it shiny object syndrome! My father can be quite frustrated that I haven’t had a 40 year career with one organisation the way that he did, but I think looking back I can see everything connected into each other, so for example I was born, whenever I go through immigration and they see my passport it sounds very glamorous, because I’m from Emerald in Australia. It’s a small mining town that doesn’t have traffic lights! But it has 3 pubs! So I came from a very very small rural place in Australia and quite early on moved to Hong Kong and I went to a school of 1000 kids and I was one of three Australians and I didn’t fit in, and I think it was there that I became very aware of the positioning of other people and kind of always scanning the room and seeing ‘what are they up to’ and yeah kind of reading the room is something I learned quite early on. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do apart from be an actress because that’s what everyone wants to do you know when they’re young! So I did general business at University, went into IT because I was an articulate female that would often get pushed out to go speak to clients and then my Dad’s English Scottish and my Mum’s Italian, and when I was studying grade 12 I had a picture of the Thames above my desk and I would look at it every night and it was the Thames at dusk and I was like, ‘I will be there’. So when I was 25 I was like I need to move to London because I need to have that Thames at dusk. So whenever I walk along the Thames it just feels so magical. When I arrived I stayed with the IT thing, so I did a couple of contracts and then started working for the health foundation on their internal systems and processes and that’s where I came across healthcare and particularly healthcare improvement and I thought, yep, I like this, it feels that I can make a difference to people whereas a lot of the IT I did before was working with Vodafone and rolling out the latest configuration on a phone plan so someone else could make more money and that never gelled well with me. So I’ve been working in healthcare since 2009 actually.
So started off in IT, ended up Sparking the Difference and the About Death podcast.
Well that’s where I am now, not the end!
Yep, ended up now – current status! So I want to talk more about you, I want to ask about your strengths and about your weaknesses. You are familiar with your strengths so rather than me ask a load of questions, just talk to me a bit about your strengths. What makes Sam, Sam?
I found the CliftonStrengths framework quite challenging if I can answer your question in a different way to start. So I originally did my strengths back in 2012 and I rejected them because in my mind, the way I was brought up and schooled, they were ‘soft’, so Empathy, Developer, Positivity. When I first met my husband he called me a unicorn that vomits rainbows and I was like, well that’s not a very nice thing is it? I’m not going to be taken seriously! So it took me a really really long time to connect with these ‘softer strengths’ because I didn’t see them as strengths, which has been quite a journey for me.
So, can I ask about that? What’s it like when you look at your strengths and don’t see your strengths as strengths?
It feels like an internal conflict of what I think I should be versus this rallying inside of, yeah I really want to go and do that. If you’re going down the path of yeah, there’s this kind of whispering of ‘go and do a podcast about death’ and that’s absolutely crazy, who’s that going to help, that’s not going to make money, that’s not going to change these things, that’s not measurable. So it feels this kind of disconnect and this internal pull which, yeah is not a great place to be in.
So I’m fascinated about authentic self and what it’s like when we’re truly us and you’ve just described a situation of almost not liking what you were and trying to be something else, if that’s fair?
Of course, yes.
So, continue the journey about your strengths because your view has evolved.
It’s evolving. What I’m finding is the strengths, through CliftonStrengths, are innate but we have to work at them and we have to take action on them. So my top strength is Positivity and I can be very warm, enthusiastic, can rally people around but I find that very challenging to do for myself, so I will be my worst, harshest, innermost critic, pre-empting anything before other people, so I know that is something I need to work on. How do I turn that around back to myself and be kind and I can do that for everyone else so why can’t I do that for myself?
I’m going to ask you about that a bit later. And also something I constantly bang the drum about is that CliftonStrengths as a report, it’s not measuring strengths, it’s measuring talent themes. So Positivity is you, your No. 1 is your strongest talent theme and if you take that talent and if you apply it and if you develop it and if you bring skills and knowledge and intentional practice, that then shows up as a strength and makes a big impact. But if you over-use it, mis-use it, if it’s raw, then it’s not a strength, it can actually be a weakness. So go on, continue about strengths then.
Well I think that’s how I saw these weaknesses, the combination, so if I look at Positivity with Developer with Empathy with Includer, in my mind well that’s just the bleeding heart for every wounded human and dog and burden child in the world and I need to bring them all into my inner circle and nurture them, and what I really had to learn was well there are boundaries that I need to put in place with that. And with the podcast, with Empathy, what enables me to do the podcast well, I think, is my empathy and connection with people but I have struggled with that and it took me 18 months to publish because I almost became enmeshed with some people’s stories and it wasn’t that I could just connect with it, it was like I was emotionally experiencing it and grieving their grief even though I’d never had that experience . Does that make sense?
It makes perfect sense and often with Empathy, I’ll talk about it as a double-edged sword, you know, it brings a power in that it brings that insight into people’s emotions, so personally, Empathy as a talent theme is low for me, so you will intuitively have insights that I won’t have, but it also potentially has a down side because you can take on those emotions. So what do you do to manage, what do you do with those emotions?
It’s a work in progress. I think what I’m doing at the moment is noticing them and it takes me a really long time to produce an episode because I very intentionally wear a different hat when I’m editing. So I might listen through an edit from ‘Sam the human’ connecting to my guest, then I’ll take that off and go OK well how do I listen to this as my listener, is this adding value to them, does this help them on their journey? And I’ll put another hat on and go ‘well what if their friends and family heard this’, are there things that might be sensitive even though the guest would think they’re fine. So I’m trying to use that as the strength that I can take these different perspectives but time box them and yeah and how do I turn that into a strength. And then it’s quite simple things, that my husband does an amazing job to help me with, so I can go into what I call the ‘flow state’ where I just have my headphones on and I’m in my little cocoon cave. I can be there for the entire day and I forget to eat, go to the toilet, shower, get fresh air, look after myself, so there are some really basic things that I need, and it kind of sounds really silly to say out loud, but I need to make sure that I’m looking after myself in that way, but it sounds quite silly if I was to say “Ian, sometimes I forget to eat”.
No it doesn’t, it sounds like that ability to get into flow but over-used a little bit.
I sprint very excessively in my flow and then I will extract and then rest.
So when you look at your dominant talents, how do you feel about those? Futuristic, Strategic, Positivity, Developer, Empathy, WOO, Communication and Activator. How do you feel about your dominant talents?
Better than what I was. So I can see through Spark the Difference, Strategic, Futuristic, Communication are core strengths that I can use and I’m even noticing in this conversation my natural tendency is to go to why they’re a weakness.
You’ll have a chance to answer that in a moment don’t worry!
They can trip me up sometimes because I feel that I can see opportunities and connections and ideas and I think why can’t other people see this and the strength of Communication helps me explore and express the steps that we need to do to get out to where I can imagine that we can be or I can see that we can be with that Futuristic state and the Strategic helps me connect the dots and the ideas and bring that together.
It’s a conversation I have so often with people who are high in Futuristic and Strategic that they see things immediately, in the blink of an eye, and sometimes need to slow down and show other people the working out to help other people get on that journey.
When I’m in a client situation it’s completely fine because I’m there to serve and I can take people through that journey, but I notice in other contexts I can get frustrated going ‘why don’t you just see this, it’s so obvious? Am I wrong, arrgh!’
So how you feel about your strengths is it’s a journey. (Work in Progress) Where do you want it to be?
I have on my wall at home a quote from Shakespeare and I don’t know which play it’s from but it’s “To thyself be true” and where I would want to be is to be showing up in my work, in my days and life from a place of strength. So how do I bring my best self to my interactions and complementing my weaknesses with other people who’ve got those as strengths because I think the Individualisation that I have and the Developer I can see that for other people, and I use my hands a lot, so people can’t see that, I’ve got this globe happening here but the full circle of the journey I suppose is how can I see that for myself and recognise that they are strengths and a place for me to grow and learn and experience from rather than something to fear as a softy.
In terms of that work in progress then towards “To thyself be true”, how are you getting on with that journey?
Well… if I can bring Myers Briggs, is that allowed to bring an alternate, so I am a Myers Briggs ENFP which I think is the most introverted of the extroverts so I need a lot of reflection time and thinking time and so I use that on my self-development journey. So I’m constantly checking in with myself and I need to be really careful to make sure that the baseline that I’m checking in is fair and accurate and strength-based rather than stories that I can be telling myself.
So let’s continue to talk about your strengths and weaknesses (you’re not going to let up on this are you?!). No, I’m going to let you get on with and talk about the bit you’ve been itching to talk about – weaknesses! (Yes). At last we get to it a few minutes in! So, what are your weaknesses Sam?
So the terms of them would be Deliberative, Context, Analytical, Restorative, Discipline. I suppose a lot of the structure of risk assessing, being really cautious and deliberate about the choices I’m making, looking for the evidence, really understanding how all of the bits fit together from an historical perspective. So to give you an example, when I finished university, I did no research of where I was going to go next, I just got into my mind that Canberra as the capital of Australia would be a really great place to go. So I got a job in Canberra and I remember flying into the airport and there is literally sheep next to the runway because it’s such a tiny town, but I did zero research and I was just like ‘that sounds like fun, let’s go, let’s just go do that thing’. And so that is what I need to be mindful of because often I’ll have this grand idea, I’m so positive, lots of energy go into it and then I kind of scratch my head and go Hmmm!
So if you think about weaknesses as anything that gets in the way of your success, you’ve immediately gone to the bottom of your report to things that, to be Disciplined, I would refer to as area as non-talent, but weaknesses can crop up anywhere. So let’s look at the top of your report, your dominant talents, where do they trip you up?
I think a lot of it is around boundaries and that’s an area of something I’m trying to be a lot more conscious of and making sure that I’m putting those boundaries in place for me and my energy but also making sure that people know my positivity isn’t naivety, I just genuinely believe we can have a different experience of our world and we’ve got lots of ideas and possibilities that can help us get there.
Do you think other people see your positivity as naivety?
I think in the past, yeah absolutely and when I’ve been in contexts that are quite academic or clinical I know that I am perceived as a bit of a weirdo! Particularly if they are quite intellectual, academic, straight (I can’t even describe that hand movement!).
How do you know they perceive you as a bit of a weirdo? What are you basing that on?
Either things that they’ve said or the connection. So with my WOO, I really enjoy those rapid connections with people and when I can’t connect with someone, they’re perceiving me in a way that’s so far into them and I can’t get through to that connection which I find very challenging. Because it is important for me to understand people and also to be understood myself.
So let me ask a strange question about your CliftonStrengths report. What do you not like about your profile? If anything?
It’s interesting, how I would’ve answered that five years, three years, one year ago is different from today.
OK so give me a snapshot of them then.
So when I first got them I was like oh God this is absolutely terrible, I must go back and like study the hard sciences, get my PhD and be like a rigorous intellectual consistent deliberative person.
What be like somebody else and work on all the stuff at the bottom of the report?
Well I think that would be easier! Because then I could fit into the world that I’ve come from. So when I first saw this I was like, so I’m a black sheep, I don’t belong to my past. I always felt that I never really fitted in.
And so you suspected that becoming something different, your authentic self might seem like an easier route?
I’m doing an ironic look at that point for listeners at home! So go on, your journey of old?
My journey of old and I started to, you know for Spark the Difference I put an exhibition on in Elephant and Castle roundabout, got a shipping container, got beautiful black and white portraits of people, recorded their stories and had people come with headphones, it was a really immersive experience. So you could walk around the shipping container listening to people’s stories and experiences of giving and receiving care. And that was when I was like, oh okay that’s not hard-edged clinical academic, like I’m doing something that’s a bit WOO and wonky but I’m quite enjoying that. And that’s when I started to explore, ok well there’s something here that feels really natural to me, that feels easy for me to do and it’s connecting with people in a different way that’s not a PDF, a peer-reviewed journal which, in a previous world, was what was needed.
How do you find it working with the clinicians and the academics?
A lot better now because I’m not almost apologising for myself, I’m showing up as me in my strengths and if they’re not going to accept that I can bring a different perspective, that’s fine, this relationship won’t work out and that’s fine. So I suppose I’m looking for them, the like-minded people, and a director of nursing that I’m working with at the moment, said “you know Sam, I’m such a planner and I’m really rigorous and diligent” and I was like Yeah and I’m not and that’s why we work well together, and rather than me trying to mould to fit into her frame of view, is how do we collaborate together to do some really cool stuff that neither of us could do by ourselves?
So in terms of what you don’t like about your profile, that’s shifted considerably?
Yeah, Yeah, Oh gosh, I’m going to say I’m happy with how it is now! Record that!
It’s recorded and I love that! Might even tweet #authenticself! So strengths perspective just for a minute as well. As you look at your profile and your dominant talents, what do you love about being you? What are you proudest of on there? What do you look at and go Woo Hoo Yes!
I know that I can walk in to any room and find connections and bring warmth and a sense of possibility and hope and that’s such a privileged place for me to be and I really love doing that. And I didn’t always know that, so I hid for a long time of standing in the corner of the room and wanting to speak up, wanting to say something but not knowing how it was going to be perceived, but now going ok, so it’s not for everyone and that’s cool actually because the people that it is for, I’m being more authentic in the messages that I’m giving, so it’s going to connect with them more.
So how does that feel to you, that change between sort of suppressing to being?
A phrase that I’ve been reflecting on lately is that I’m shifting from being my biggest critic to my most enthusiastic cheerleader and that still doesn’t come easily for me to say now but going how can I be the friend to me that I am to other people and just enjoy being me!
So let’s dive into that a bit because I’m always fascinated by mindset, about what we think. What goes on in your head, what’s it like to be Sam?
It’s a bit crazy or chaotic I should say! I see things very colourfully, like literally with colours, but also very visually as well so, using my hands, everything’s like I’m opening up a big screen or a display so I’ve just got things, so that’s top right and that’s top left and yeah I kind of clock things in my mind in a visual place that I can then come back as a hook and anchor. I think I never really switch off so I’m always connecting an idea or wrestling with something or turning it inside out in a different way, and recently it’s like I actually really really enjoy doing that. So I struggle with rest and recovery and again part of my rest and recovery is exploring and tidying away thoughts and archiving them rather than ruminating on them. I can do that.
And we talked right at the start about positivity and you unleashing that on other people, and you touched on self-compassion, so talk to me about that, about self-compassion and how you are learning to be more self-compassionate.
A friend the other week gave me a balloon. So she opened a packet of balloons and she said “what’s your favourite colour?” and it’s coral or salmon so there was a balloon of that colour, and she said “what I’d like you to do”. Do you remember, I don’t know if you ever did this at school, you had an egg that you carried around as kind of high school birth control, you know, you have this egg as your potential child, you need to carry it around for a week.
Oh ok yeah, I didn’t know where you were going there! Back with you again!
So you have to look after this egg and she gave me this balloon so she said “for the week, you take this balloon around with you and you blow it up to the level of your energy and you notice it”. And I was like ‘Whoa!’ So I did and I noticed that I don’t need to have a fully blown balloon all of the time and there are sometimes when actually a half blown balloon (say that 3 times fast!) is energising in its own way and gives a different level of reflection and ability and being self-compassionate is recognising those ebbs and flows in my life and that sometimes I can sprint really quickly really fast and allowing myself the space and time to do that and then allowing myself the recovery because I’m never, as much as I wish I was, going to be a 9-to-5 clock in, clock out, Monday to Friday, do the thing and then walk away.
You don’t have to be.
No but for long time I wished I was and so self-compassion is recognising that I have a different pattern of flow to a lot of people and how do I look after myself around that so that might be, I’ve been going to yoga for the last couple of years and mindfulness and breathing and the importance of no matter what’s happening, the yoga teacher said to me “you can always put one hand on your heart, one hand on your chest close your eyes and breathe and know that your body’s got you”. But knowing that that’s always a place that I can return to no matter what is really powerful.
Let’s talk big picture. What impact do you want to make on this world, upon the Universe?
I think if I can make people’s days, experiences and maybe lives a little bit better, all the connections with other people deeper and more authentic, that’s good for me and through the podcasts that’s coming out in ways that I had never expected or imagined. So people, after I’ve released an episode write to me, which I never in my wildest dreams thought, and they write the most beautiful and profound stories and experiences that they are sharing and then what’s really magical is when they say “Sam you know I want to tell you this and because I’m telling you this I now have the confidence to go have that conversation with someone I never would’ve before”. And that’s changing the dynamic of another person’s relationship by me showing up as my authentic self, doing something I believe in a way that I truly believe. That’s pretty cool!
So what drives you with the podcast?
I was afraid for a really really long time of doing it but what drives me is that I couldn’t not do it anymore. So it was 12-18 months, when I’d settle, it was always in my head, it’s always in my head and, do you know Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic?, so I adore this book and recommend it if you haven’t read it, but she talks about these ideas kind of floating and this idea will kind of latch onto you. So you don’t choose the idea, the idea is like ‘Hey Sam, I’m going to turn’ but then she’s like if you leave it for long enough the idea’s like ‘well sorry Sam, you’re clearly busy doing something else, I’m going to go and find someone else who has the time and capacity to bring me to life’. And there was that point where I couldn’t not do this thing because I had all of the conversations there and I had to overcome that fear of ‘this is quite a crazy thing to do’ but if it can help one person, that was enough for me and already it’s not even one person per episode it’s several people per episode saying ‘this has changed the way that I think about talking or feeling or thinking about death’ so that’s my driver.
So what held you back? You talked about having the idea for quite a while?
What held me back was who am I to do this? So the story in my head was I’m just a girl from a rural mining town in Australia. I didn’t go to a posh school, I didn’t go to a posh University, I’m not a clinician, I’m not an academic, I haven’t had a near death experience, so who am I to go and talk to people about their experiences. And then, it gets even worse, because I hold a space for people, I listen and I hold this space, people share really beautiful, precious experiences. What if I can’t do them justice in the way that I’m producing the podcast and what if it comes out that I’m embarrassing them or I’m shaming them or I ridicule them? And that was my fear that I couldn’t do their experience justice in the way that I was sharing it. And so the way that I overcame that was, when I finally got the courage, I had these recordings and I decided to send them to some people and said just tell me what you think about this. And asked why wasn’t I publishing this?
So the story you told yourself, and I’m always fascinated about the stories we tell ourself, so the story you told yourself was ‘who am I to?’, ‘ I’m just a’ – so now that you’re doing this, and it’s been featured on, I think was it radio 5?
BBC radio 5 on Monday!
Absolutely, and you’ve got a ‘thing’ on iTunes that is helping people, can you answer the question now – ‘who are you to’ do that?
So I am a curious person who can help people tell their stories and by sharing people’s experiences, other people can benefit from that and choose what they want out of that story. Take it or leave it, but they’ve then got the opportunity if they want to engage and if they want to change their mindset or belief or take action, they’ve got a nudge out in the universe that it’s okay, none of us really know how to do this and that’s okay but as Oprah says “once you know better you do better“. Never thought I’d quote those words!
Haha! Link will be in show notes! So you’ve got loads on the go, you’re doing lots of different things. What are you like with productivity, how do you get all the stuff done, how do you keep on top of it all? We’ve already talked about flow state but how do you manage all this stuff?
Do you know Gretchen Rubin’s work on The Four Tendencies? So it was really shocking for me to do her test and find out that I’m a rebel, so neither internally motivated or externally motivated, so I do at times struggle with all of the things that I could possibly do. It takes a lot to create those structures for me and I have to keep changing those structures because, it sounds weird to say it, but I get bored with my process, so I have to constantly feed that inner child that ‘Hey we’re doing this great thing now’, ‘oh and what about this and what about this?’, so at the moment I’m using some great techniques from a guy called Charlie Gilkey in the States who does momentum planners and he said that everything can be broken down to a 2 hour task or a 15 minute task. And I was like ‘ooohh’! And he talks about having focus blocks, admin blocks, social blocks, and recovery blocks, so I start to think of my days in this kind of way. So what are the two or three things that I really want to focus on, and they are going to be a 2 hour focus window, and importantly for me, where am I going to do that, because I realise I’m actually quite a sensitive person and I’m influenced by my environment so I can’t just go and do deep thinking work in a coffee shop where there’s all this buzz around. But actually reconciling my finance accounts is great in a coffee shop because I need that stimulation and it’s gonna stop me going onto Facebook or something. So I’m really conscious of what work am I intending to do and where am I planning to do that work.
That’s really interesting because I’m so different to that. I know that I can just switch into focus on a train, in reception, in a coffee shop, and get into a really deep focus, to the point at which people are probably thinking ‘who’s that miserable bloke sat there’ or somebody’s asking me a question and I’ve not heard it because I’m just into deep focus. So different!
I’m so jealous!
So when you get bored of this approach, what do you think might be next then? Recognising what you said about your need to change your process.
I have many processes that I swap in and out of. Oh gosh, I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this, (deep breath!), so I did the Camino de Santiago walk last year, 1000 kms across the North of Spain for 36 days, and I was really anxious coming back because you have this life changing, your days change and your experience of time changes, how was I going to come back into a normal working world? So I went to Ryman’s and I bought a student notebook and I created a timetable for myself, as if I was going back to school. So sometimes I really need that structure and rigour and so I was like ‘well first thing on Monday we have a double planning period and then after that we move on to finance accounts reconciliation’ and for four weeks I had to plan my time like this because I was so used to being so unstructured and walking and out in the fresh air for over a month that at that space and time I know I needed that. So that’s something that when I really need to focus, I kind of create that structure around me, but knowing the person I am, if you said to me ‘Sam, for the rest of your working life you have to do this particular timetable’ I’d rebel against that with all of my being!
So there’s going to be something next that’s different to kind of structure that and ……
I use a lot of stickers and charts and images and looking at those little rewards and triggers that keep me going. It’s quite chaotic in my world!
We’ve talked a bit about wellbeing and resilience already and you talked about self-compassion, you’ve talked about mindfulness, we’ve talked about the About Death podcast means you’re having challenging conversations, how do you look after yourself, how do you look after your wellbeing? And how do you be kind to yourself and, sorry, this is the world’s most longest, most rambly question, but how do you cut yourself the same slack that you would cut other people?
It’s a work in progress and sometimes I need to put a lot of structure around it. So my other half works in international peacekeeping and development and gets to travel to what he calls quite exciting places in the world, which I think are quite scary. So when he goes away I know that I need to put a lot of structure into those self-care routines because otherwise we almost go on this vigil that if I’m doing really well, I feel guilty that he’s not got the same lifestyle that I currently do, and I know that I can really withdraw from all sorts of activities. So I’ve had to create myself a chart and it’s called ‘are you feeling icky Sam?’ chart! And it’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for me, so box one bottom left, ‘are you feeling icky?’ yes okay, have you showered today, have you eaten, have you spoken to a human, have you left the house? Yes, you go to the next one, okay ‘have you gone for a strategic thinking in this kind of environment’ or ‘have you played the piano’ or ‘have you gone to a yoga class’ and then it goes up another level like, ‘have I had a really deep conversation’, probably with a fellow ENFP who’s going to play quickly and think quickly with those thoughts, so I really follow this as my triggers, which makes me sound a bit crazy doesn’t it?
No, it makes you sound human, you’re just answering the question honestly and this is why I do the podcast because I want people to tell those authentic stories.
This is authentically me!
Which is what I asked for!
You did, you did so I won’t apologise! But I find that if I don’t do that it can feel easy to slip away and hibernate on the couch.
How often does that happen that you get into the sort of icky Sam?
What I’m trying to notice more is when I’m at 30 or 40% because I usually self-care when I’m at like a 0 or 1% and then I get sick and then you have to go to bed or go to the couch, and so how do I notice when I’m not getting there, you know when I’m on the way down?
And that’s powerful isn’t it, the metaphor that we often use is about with our phones, you don’t wait until it’s powered off to plug it into the charger, you normally, when it’s getting low or gone into low power mode, there’s the time to re-charge.
And going back to the balloon analogy, so I took notes on my balloon experiment, but I found that it takes more breath and effort to blow up a balloon from deflated than it does to top the balloon up when it’s already half-full. And I was like ‘whoaa – that’s a reflection and a half’! (It is!)
So how do I notice when I’m at half deflated or half-full, if you’re a glass and keep topping up?
Right, big picture – there’s a few things you’ve said quite a few times and “I’m work in progress” is one of them that you’ve mentioned quite a few times. So it strikes me that you are very reflective and always sort of working on that journey. How do you go about doing that? How are you working on this ‘work in progress’ and making sure that Sam is work in progress in the direction that you want?
There’s some really practical things. Have you come across The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron?
I know of it, not read, on a wish list, reading list for me.
So she’s got a creations version and a work place version and it’s a 12 week kind of reflective practice but one of her killers is morning pages, and she says to hand write three A4 pages to get all the clutter out of your head, and I find I really need to do that, and that is the space that I reflect. And it took me a really really really long time to be truly honest with what I was putting on the paper, and when I did I felt open then because I could go ‘well what is the story I’m truly telling myself and is that fair and is it accurate, you know okay, let’s explore that’. But it took a lot of guts to get that from my head out onto the page. I’ve since then shifted to a great platform called 750words.com because an A4 page is 250 words roughly, so 3 of those gets you to 750 words, and with my compulsion for stickers you get little badges, so if you do a 3-day streak you get a little penguin badge and then all of these badges so that’s my place where I reflect and I’ve started to ask myself more intentional questions because when I think I just brain dump, I can get tripped up by stories that I’m not aware that I’m telling myself. So yeah, a big reflection practice. Yoga is really really helping to just create the space and a very different, Robin in Canada who invited me to join a women’s mindfulness practice group, and it was the first time I’d experienced a group of women coming together with no agenda, no ulterior motive other than to support each other to just be. And every fortnight we would get on a call and another one of her amazing friends, Lee, would take us through a meditation, and it’s sounds surreal but having your headphones on and listening to other people breathe is a really really calming connected place, and going ‘okay I know that I can always return to this place no matter what’s happening out there, I’ve got my breath, my heart is going to keep going until it’s not and then I’m not here’ and I can just be.
Oh that’s so fascinating! Support networks are fascinating as well and you’re doing some difficult and challenging work. To what extent have you found your tribe?
I’m looking and I’ve been wrestling with this lately because in my mind I’m looking for the room of 50 people that are hidden somewhere in the world that are just waiting for me to go ‘Ta da!’ (I’m here!). But the reality I’m learning is actually it might just be one or two people in different pockets. There is not one secret place that all like-minded people, there’s a club that they’ve already gone and formed. So I think I would’ve said that I’m still looking for a tribe but actually to be fair I’ve got some really brilliant and supportive relationships around me that I think I haven’t recognised as my tribe because they’re not all in one place.
So you’ve not found the Unicorn that Vomits Rainbows Club Society yet?
No but I will be the founding president if anyone would like to come and join me! We could make some awesome lapel badges and stickers and notebooks!
There’s going to be a brilliant logo isn’t there for this club already? So there’s loads you do to reflect and to help you on this journey of work in progress.
I think those are very practical ways that I have shared on reflection. A big intentional reflection that both my partner and I at the time took, was to walk along the Camino de Santiago in the North of Spain. And what was really interesting about that for us, it took 36 days and we probably saw 10 other people in their 30’s and 40’s. So they were mostly young kids doing their gap year or people who had retired and there were very very few couples who were younger and everyone kept asking ‘so what’s your story, why are you here, what trauma have you gone through?’. And we felt a bit weird to go ‘well we’re just pausing and thinking about life actually’. And for us going through and the physical act of walking and me being able to see things on a big picture, you know walking through this amazing scenery and exploring the narratives of my life and actually going ‘I can let go of that, and I can let go of that’ was such a refreshing and precious time. And I think what was interesting is when we came back from the Camino and we were starting to talk to friends and colleagues, they were like ‘that’s fascinating, I would love to do that’ and we were like, ‘well you can’ and they were like ‘no, you don’t understand, I’ve got a job, I can’t take that time off work’ but for both of us we felt it was really important. We were in our mid to late 30’s, what has the last 20 years of work meant to us and what does the next 20-40 look like and how do we create that time and space to get in tune with what’s important to us because we were both very values-based people. And what I didn’t know was that for the 36 days he had an engagement ring in his pocket and we got to the west coast of Spain on the last day, to Finisterre, which is called the end of the world because when the Romans went there, the sea and the skyline don’t have horizons, so you can’t see and distinguish so it just feels like you’re going to drop off the end of the world and that’s where he proposed!
And that’s a powerful time out and piece of reflection. Answer this however you want but what do you wish you’d known earlier or what would you want to say to your younger self, to young Sam?
I would say to just be you in all your glory, in all your quirky weirdness that you think is in your head. If I knew that 20 years ago, 30 years ago, I feel I would’ve had an easier place of being for myself and I think I felt alone a lot in my life and to say you are never alone and you need to go find the others. So it’s no good wishing for your tribe and imagining that they’re in that room, they’re all having a lovely cup of tea, but you’ve got to go out there and show up as yourself to find the others.
What do you think future Sam might have to say to today’s Sam?
I’ve met her! So I read a book called Playing Big by Tara Mohr and if people haven’t read this I highly highly highly recommend it. In this she takes you through a meditation where you meet your inner mentor and that is your future self in 20 years. She is pretty cool!
I’d spotted the book on the table. I don’t normally ask that question, it just popped into my head. So what has future Sam got to say to Sam today?
You’re doing fine, just keep being you, keep showing up and put your trust in the journey.
So if people want to know more about you and connect with you, where can we find you online?
So, I’m on Twitter shall I give you my name? (Yeah!). So I’m on Twitter @Sam_meikle and Meikle rhymes with treacle so that’s how you remember it. Spark the Difference is the main vehicle of my work and so we’ve got the website sparkthedifference.com and Twitter is only letting us have sparkthediff, so you’ll find us on Twitter @sparkthediff. And the About Death podcast has its own Twitter handle and that is a @abtdeathpodcast on Twitter but it’s also on iTunes, Spotify and any of your local podcast players near you.
Excellent! That has been wonderful! Thank you so much for being honest, for sharing your journey, for sharing your work in progress. So, to the unicorn that vomits rainbows, I hope nobody just listens to that clip in isolation (!), Sam Meikle, just to say thank you so much for spending the time and for being so open and honest and being authentically you.
My absolute pleasure, thank you for having me.