There’s nothing quite like a dose of fresh sea air to clear the mind. Even better when it’s a bracing East Coast breeze mixed with a Siberian blast. Add in a group of 200 writers, thinkers, and general clever clogs and the resultant mixture is a heady cocktail. I was fortunate enough to be part of this year’s Names not Numbers crowd that gathered in Aldeburgh. For three days we chatted, listened, watched, and reflected on what matters most to us. An extraordinary amount of ground was covered in styles that ranged from panel discussions, to interviews, via stand-up comedy and community singing. However, for me two things stood out.
The first was the importance of good company. Network events tend to get a bad press. They’re often seen merely as opportunities for people to trophy hunt business cards. This event (and it was my fourth time) couldn’t be further from the stereotype. In this context, networking is all about sharing and learning. Everyone was extremely generous with their time, their ideas and their energy. Indeed, it demonstrated that the more you gave away the more you received in return, showing clearly that the way to become enriched is through munificence of spirit. As Jane Austen said in Persuasion: “My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversations.”
The second take away for me was that the symposium was yet another example of the importance of listening. I’ve written many times before about my journey towards becoming a better listener (I remain work in progress) but sitting amongst such a group was a reminder of the fact that everyone has a story to tell and a point of view to share. Modern life makes it very difficult for us to stop and really listen. As David Hockney once said: “Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.”
Ironically for a conference on connectedness (and despite the valiant efforts of the key sponsor, Vodafone) there was precious little mobile signal and wifi had to be rationed. In a way it was a good reminder of how much we allow ourselves to be distracted by our devices. Once over the initial panic, the realisation that there was little chance of any emails getting through provided an excuse to sit back and listen. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Listening is often confused with hearing, just as seeing is not the same as looking. Many of us don’t listen properly. Some engage in the social convention of taking it in turns to talk, but the silence is rarely to listen and more often used as time to think about what to say next. Add in a bit of confirmation bias and, it seems, we’re in danger of losing the skill of listening to understand. Listening requires focus and suspending other thoughts. To be effective it depends on generosity. Only by giving oneself is it possible to receive what is on offer. This is true whether we are listening to others or to ourselves.
But perhaps it wasn’t just the presence of so many brilliant minds that encouraged so much listening. Perhaps it was also the presence of the sea. Long recognised for its therapeutic properties, there’s nothing like a bit of seaside to buck one up mentally and physically. As Flaubert wrote. “Doesn’t it seem to you,” asked Madame Bovary, “that the mind moves more freely in the presence of that boundless expanse, that the sight of it elevates the soul and gives rise to thoughts of the infinite and the ideal?”
So ask your Doctor to prescribe you three days at the seaside with no mobile signal. As Tufty used to say: “Stop, look, and listen.”