I’ve talked in different places before about what it’s like to be more of an introvert and someone who leads, or is seen by others as a leader. I’ve also shared previously about dealing with anxiety, and how this has shaped how I lead design. What follows are some more personal reflections, as you never know who might need to hear your story.
A hearing loss
I’ve had problems with my hearing since I was a child which didn’t affect me too significantly until my mid-late thirties. I even went to music college when I was in my early twenties and have played guitar in bands most of my life. But about 6 years ago my health and hearing seemed to start deteriorating. I experienced what I now reflect on as something close to burnout, in what was a really demanding job in the Civil Service. This point in 2016 was also a turning point. After a nasty virus I was really ill for a few months. While I struggled through for most of that time at work with post-viral symptoms, it’s since then that I’ve experienced more serious problems with hearing loss. This can fluctuate from almost no hearing in one ear, to moderate on a good day. I also developed tinnitus in my left ear, which goes through cycles of being better to much worse on a bad day. This hearing loss can occasionally affect my balance, and it makes listening for long periods really uncomfortable. For example, 8 hours of remote calls a day during lockdown wasn’t much fun (it was physically painful), and I’m no longer able to cope well if there’s a lot of noise around me, like in a crowded venue or bar. It’s even not great being in an open plan office for too long as the noise levels can get overwhelming.
To cut a long story short, I’m having to make my own adjustments to living with hearing loss and how this affects my day to day life and work. It’s been a difficult few years while I’ve been through treatments (NHS and money wasted on private consultations), an operation, and experiments with assistive technology like trying and failing to stick with hearing aids.
I wanted to share this because it has felt like such a struggle. Hearing loss can be a really isolating and lonely experience. It makes it harder to connect and communicate with people – you might be straining to hear what’s going on in conversations, and I’ve even found that it’s sometimes easier to avoid social situations altogether. In terms of mental health I’ve had serious doubts about whether I’d still be able to do my job (I love working with creative and design teams but my work is communication). Hearing loss can simply be exhausting, struggling to hear all day, and not feeling like you have the means or support to make adjustments, especially as a senior leader. I’ve even questioned if I’ll be able to feel properly part of a team again, and worried about connecting with my friends,and family, sometimes feeling disconnected to those closest to me… in situations like this it’s easy to question your own self worth and even start to feel helpless.
And yet, I also want to be honest in saying life has been worth living despite this struggle. I’m so grateful to wake up each day, for my family, the opportunities to work with others, and the ability I still have to take on new challenges (like writing a book last year).
My story is that disability is gradually reshaping who I am, and I believe that this is increasingly reflected in how I lead and work with others. Maybe I am a bit clumsy these days, I definitely talk too loud without realising, and often accidentally talk across people, but that’s who I am. The big thing that has changed for me over the past few years is feeling more able to be seen as I am. I really love the idea that our vulnerabilities, when we allow ourselves to be seen, actually start to become our strengths. I sort of see hearing loss as a strange super power in this way – it’s definitely given me a different perspective, and shaped how I work – like over preparing for speaking and presenting, writing more clearly, and being really intentional about how, where and when I communicate with people.
I no longer believe that disability should be a question of what you can’t do, but being prepared to ask what you can do instead. While “it’s okay not to be okay” I also think we all have to be open to change, and how we can learn to adapt throughout our lives – responding to the different situations we face.
Walking is a good example of how I’m adapting. I’m lucky to live with my family on the edge of the Lake District, but I had never been what you might call an outdoors person before. You don’t need to be able to hear well to walk up hills – so surprising myself, I started some fell walking towards the end of lockdown and have got really addicted to this now (I’ve started working my way through the 214 Wainwright peaks). There’s something about walking up mountains, about pushing through, and about how the view and your perspective shifts as you reach the top. It’s been really good for my mental health, and I can feel the difference when I don’t get out on a serious walk at least every few weeks. I also like the idea that I can climb one mountain at a time – that has to be something worth doing!
Finally, I think I’ve actually learned to smile and even to relax more over the last few years. I’ve had to observe life more than I’ve been able to be right at the center of everything. But it’s about being more comfortable with who I am. Being seen, being your whole self, and fully living despite the circumstances.
If you’re struggling please talk to someone. We’re all adapting, or even just coping with situations in ways that go unnoticed by others. Your life matters, and I can promise you from experience that even in the darkest moments there will be a time where things start to feel different.