Ella and I have arrived in West Cork and I am feeling contemplative. Maybe it is the mountains and sea and stars allowing my mind to be at ease, or maybe it is all the contemplative benches we’ve found over the past few days. Either way, I feel like reflecting back on a few things, and trying to answer the above question from three different directions: physically, personally, and then philosophically.
How we (physically) got here
There’s a British nursery rhyme that puts our journey into quite simple terms and starts like this:
When I was one,
I sucked my thumb,
The day I went to sea.
I climbed aboard a pirate ship
And the Captain said to me:
‘We’re going this way, that way,
Over the Irish Sea.
A bottle of rum to fill my tum
A Pirates’ life for me’.
Although there were no pirates spotted on our journey, we did bring a bottle of Wood’s Navy recipe rum and took a (very small) swig to honor the rhyme. After two months spending time with Ella’s family in the UK, it was both difficult and exciting to be moving again on our search to find a place to call home. France hadn’t worked out, for many reasons, among them Coronavirus and language, but after spending time staring at topographical maps and reading articles about crafty local communities, West Cork sounded like it could be an even better option. More expensive, yes, but a trade-off, a little bit more possibility for financial stress for a lot less stress around integration and language. Plus, we were both really curious how I might feel in a landscape I am only one generation removed from.
My grandfather was born outside of Belfast in 1914, before that area became annexed by the British and turned into Northern Ireland. I am one of the very fortunate few (though I think there are actually millions of people who qualify) who can, and have, claimed Irish citizenship through the Foreign Birth Registration. Basically, any person with a grandparent born on the island of Ireland is allowed to apply to become a citizen, and now that Brexit has happened, more and more people are applying to do so, to maintain their European Union ties and rights.
From the southwest of England, we drove north and then west to Fishguard, Wales, a small port town that reminded me a lot of the ferry terminal I frequented in my youth in Anacortes, Washington. Bikes attached to our roof, we wound and scraped (our tiny VW Lupo was very loaded down) our way onto the enormous ship, entering the belly of the beast with the other Sprinter vans and lorries that didn’t make the 2-meter cut for the upper deck.
The ferry was relatively empty this time of year, mostly Irish accents returning home or to visit family. We sat on the upper deck to watch the UK fade away into the distance, and I found myself regularly turning around to see if I could spot the shore on the other side. The Irish Sea isn’t that wide, but definitely too wide to see from one island to the other. As we lost sight of the pinging lighthouse, we descended back into the ship and bought a paper. Sat in the least populated corner we could find, we meandered across reading of plane crashes and scoffing at features of Instagram celebrities.
The other side was possibly an even smaller port, Rosslare, Ireland. We crawled back out of the beast and were met by a friendly border guard who asked to see our passenger locator forms, asked our nationalities, and, without even glancing at our passports, waved us into the country of my most recent ancestors. I thought my first entry into Ireland as an Irish citizen would be slightly more eventful, maybe a funny anecdote to tell people later about how I was welcomed in by a border guard that recognized I was a newly-minted member, returning from the diaspora, but there were no worries about our origins or intentions, so we just drove right in.
I knew Ireland was small, a mere five million people. Compared to the UK, seventy million, and the US, three hundred sixty-five million, it is a drop in the bucket of the human population. But I hadn’t imagined such a lax entry, they must not even have to worry much about smuggling or illegal immigration. If anything, they may want more immigration, as there are today nearly as many Irish citizens (or people eligible for citizenship) living off of the island than on the island. And if you account for the people who could have been Irish, had their ancestors stayed on the island, the population here would rival that of the UK. But the fewer the better, for us at least.
From Rosslare we drove along the southern coast through Co. Wexford, Co. Kilkenny, Co. Waterford, and finally into Co. Cork. We passed a few looming mountains near Waterford, sleeping giants I hadn’t seen since I was last in the states, but the strongest feelings came once we descended into West Cork and could see the faint outlines of the Shehy Mountains, the sun setting behind them. Seeing their stature, and knowing that the mountains around here plunged deep into the Atlantic, Bantry Bay being one of the deepest in the world, renewed a sense of home in me that I hadn’t realized I hadn’t felt in a long time. The coastlines of Brittany and the mountains of southern Aveyron were beautiful, but those landscapes were filled with holiday homes and intensive farms. West Cork has its share of both, but the trees are better preserved, the mountains taller, and the sea closer than anything we have seen yet. In some ways I am reminded of the San Juan Islands of western Washington where I spent a lot of time in my childhood in my grandfather’s cabin on a tiny, sparsely inhabited island, and in other ways I am reminded of the barren mountains of the Highlands of Scotland, where we recently visited Ella’s sister and her fiancée.
Talking the next day with the owners of the cottage, Ella and I both kept hearing little bits of information that made us like the area more and more. The fact that when the owners had moved here, they hadn’t been receiving their mail, and talking about it to a friend they were informed that they just needed to tell “Tom” where they lived, so that he would know where to drop their mail. The bit about the Beara and Sheep’s Head peninsulas still being relatively unknown to tourists. And especially when they said that there was little to no light pollution to block out the stars.
We have arrived in West Cork, to a land I am only about eighty years removed from, and I don’t know where we are going from here, but hopefully it won’t be too far.
How I (personally) got here
I’ve written about my working past in some level of detail, but there is an aspect of it that I’ve been avoiding, because ever since it happened it has made me feel uneasy thinking about it. It may seem superfluous when compared to some people’s experiences, but it had a large impact on me, and was the final action that made me realize I wasn’t going to change the way business worked by playing by the rules.
Near the end of my time working for Wunderman Thompson, I wrote an email to our new CEO of North America, responding to some things he had said (or really, not said) in response to me asking him at an all-hands meeting why I, and many others, hadn’t had raises in five years. His response was lackluster and convoluted, so afterwards I felt the desire to tell him that. I stood, literally shaking, at my desk and wrote out the below email to him.
Looking back, I think I intended for it to be a last resort at trying to make change happen within our company. I had sent similar emails to the Global CEO, and the previous CEO of North America, which had both received no response, and for which I had been pulled into the HR Director’s office and questioned/accosted for sending emails to people above them. However, I had also spoken to every president of the Seattle office, every Chief Creative Officer, and the HR Director on multiple occasions, and no change, whatsoever, occurred in my six years working there. It was the same thing every time, that change was coming, but things only ever got worse. So, I poked the bear (as my bosses liked to call it when I sent emails or made honest remarks to chief executives) for the last time:
I’m Nick, the person who asked you about compensation during the all hands today. I appreciate you answering my question, however, I wanted to let you know that your answer was no different than any of the executives who have sat in that chair and responded to me asking the same question again and again for the past three years. Nor was it different to the answers given to those who asked the same question years before I gained the knowledge required to see the inequity within WPP and Wunderman.
Your answer, in my opinion, was inadequate, and so were all of the answers that came before yours.
I too appreciate open and honest conversation, to my core, which is why I find it interesting to send messages like these, to see if people with the power to create change actually do value the opinions of others, or whether it is a façade. I sent a message to Mel recently as well, about the shortcomings of the people who came before her, and who have led the Seattle office previously. She didn’t even have the courage to respond directly to me, but she did have the time to forward the message to someone, who forwarded the message to Krista Hale, to try to find out why I was so unhappy with the previous leadership. Needless to say, nothing changed as a result of a forwarded email, or at least nothing that was relayed to me. It would be foolish of me to think that the organizational changes that have happened recently occurred because of a simple email, but even if that kind of thing were possible in this era of business, wouldn’t it be amazing for a chief executive to come out and talk about how the words from honest employees led to massive structural change? That would be a company I would be proud to work for.
So, since I have no way to know if she actually took my email seriously, I will include my original message to her as post script after these thoughts.
You spoke of the fact that our margins are the problem. How aiming for three to four percent margins, and operating even lower, has stagnated the wages of people like me. But that could not possibly be true. If it were true, then Mark Read wouldn’t be making hundreds of millions per year, and you wouldn’t be hiring some of the most famous architects on the planet to custom design houses like this for you. Please, don’t get me wrong, you deserve to be well compensated for the work that you do, for the businesses you have built, for the people who have in turn been employed by those businesses. But, do you really believe that the reason I haven’t had a raise in five years is because Wunderman has low profit margins? I highly suggest you get a copy of George Monbiot’s book, “How Did We Get Into This Mess.” In fact, I’ll leave my copy on my desk for you to grab and read if you’re still around. In it, he focuses much on the practices of businesses just like ours, and about social psychology more broadly. In fact, he even singles out JWT in areas about ethics relating to consumerism and advertising. Most importantly though, the book gives you an overall look into the history of the making of the hyper-capitalist, slowly monopolizing, resource-and-planet destroying society we live in today, and how we’ve already been through this once, how the American people and government revolted against it. Nearly every sentence is backed by statistics and solid reporting.
What I wish someone in your position could see is that my generation is, and will continue to be, different. We care immensely about our communities, both locally and globally. We want to see a world where people are treated equally, where CEO’s don’t make 1,111 times as much as their (somehow “well paid”) employees (that’s one hundred million dollars divided by my salary, if you didn’t notice). We want employers who see the effects they are having on the health of the planet and the people that they serve, and adjust their business concepts accordingly. And if that means downsizing, focusing on sustainability over growth, and breaking up the immense conglomerations like WPP in order to distribute wealth and create competition, then that is exactly what we will end up doing.
I want Wunderman to succeed, otherwise I wouldn’t bother saying any of this to you. And I know that you want Wunderman to succeed as well. But what I find most interesting, most vital, is that your success and my success are not both possible. So which one do you think is going to be correct? The success that is based on a changing world and the minds who are most affected by it, or the success that is based on what you were taught about traditional business at a corporatized university, the success based on the idea that this world is not a finite resource?
That part is up to you.
Thank you for being here today, for answering my question, and for, I hope, taking these thoughts into consideration. And if you pick up the book, you don’t need to return it, because it only confirmed everything my generation already knows and feels. (I sit at the standing desk in the pod next to Adam Brock on the west side of the building.)
– Nick Kelly
My email was not well received. I don’t know exactly what I expected, as so many of my previous attempts to express my concerns about our company’s direction were either ignored or written off as me being a “disgruntled employee,” but I definitely did not expect the CEO of North America of one of the largest advertising agencies on the planet to send off a short-winded, poorly thought through, frat-bro-like response:
I’m reading this note but I sure wish you had your facts straight before throwing bombs on a Friday. You don’t know me. You don’t know my story. I’ll meet you half way but I sure don’t appreciate accusations without knowing the facts.
Happy to speak this weekend if you will have an open perspective.
I responded promptly, saying I would be happy to talk over the weekend and provided my phone number, but it was Monday before I got any reply, which was in the form of, once again, being pulled into the HR Director’s office and being accosted, though this time she went way too far.
She attempted to tell me that I had threatened Shane, by including a link in my email to an article that had been sent to me after the initial all-hands meeting by a co-worker who also saw through the bullshit he had spewed after I asked him about raises. The article was about an architecture firm which had built a seemingly multi-million dollar house for Shane in a rural part of Washington. The HR Director, Krista, latched onto the fact that the sixth or seventh photo in the article happened to be a photo of Shane and his family, and told me that I had threatened both him and his family by simply including the link in my email.
I immediately told her she was way out of bounds, and that nobody in their right mind would construe anything I said as a physical threat, and then she switched tactics to call it a “veiled threat,” which I continued to find unbelievable and vehemently deny. In no world could what I have written even be considered a veiled threat, as there was no insinuation of harm, or the possibility of it, in any way.
Until now, I have felt as though I have to defend the things I said. The reactions of the leaders of my company made me feel like I was lesser, like my thinking was insane and unacceptable, they tried to intimidate me into quitting my job presumably so that they wouldn’t look as bad for firing someone just for having a more Millenial mindset and different philosophical beliefs than them. Shane told me over the phone that I had to choose the next day whether or not I still wanted to work for Wunderman, and told me I was lucky he didn’t just fire me on the spot.
But giving myself some distance and time to think about the situation, I now realize that my initial reaction to their responses was correct. That the only way they could possibly feel threatened is in their careers, that they know deep down the way they treat their employees as replaceable pawns is abhorrent, and that they do see that my generation will not put up with it any longer. In fact, I never made a threat, not even a veiled one, I was simply the first person to point out to them that reality and their perception of it were diverting, and that is why they misconstrued the feeling of instability with a threat.
It is a good measure to walk away from something that you wrote for a period of time and then return to it in a different state of mind to see if you still feel the same way. It has been nearly two years since I wrote that email to Shane, and I still feel exactly the same about every word that I wrote. The world needs to change dramatically in order to be a place where humans can continue to prosper, and modern business practices stand directly in the way of us and the sustainable future we are owed.
I got to this point because I saw through the thin façade and weak promises of a company that was, and is, the epitome of modern, corporate America and unrestrained hyper-capitalism. And what I learned is that the people who believe in it are too powerful for anyone to be able to point out their flaws from the inside. Just like I was threatened with termination, employees around the United States, even within the US government, are and will continue to be fired when their belief systems don’t match up with their executives’ hallucinations of the world being a place where constant growth and profit are possible.
Just like I said in my email to Shane, are we going to keep moving forward with a vision of success that is based on a changing world and the people and minds who are most affected by it? Or are we going to keep descending into chaos, with a vision of success that is based on what people are taught about business in corporatized universities and the idea that this world is not a finite resource?
I chose the prior. I quit Wunderman Thompson, took my savings, and moved to a part of the world where I could afford to live in a way that is conducive to both humans and nature continuing to cohabit on this planet. And that was the best choice I could have made, because if I stayed, I would have just been constantly repressed and molded into what corporate America needed me to be in order to continue creating greater wealth disparity and inequity in the world.
I would have continued to be part of the problem.
How we (all) got here
A perfect lead in to talking about the destruction that is currently happening around our world does not exist, but my story is as good a reason as any to begin doing something about it. It is shocking that we have become, or have continued to be, so blind to the effects we have on others. It was shown over a year ago that since the year 1970, humans have wiped out over 60% of the global population of animal life. Not just one species, or ten, or the endangered ones, 60% of all. Animal. Life. Let that sink in.
But we are doing things about it, right? No, not fast enough. The UN’s biodiversity head, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, said recently, “Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised. And the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own wellbeing, security and prosperity.”
One can speculate on how we got to this point. My own thoughts are that we undermined the educational systems that were vital to people understanding, and respecting nature, and each other. But also, coming from a place like the United States and traveling around Europe, you realize that the problems we face are not recent. The European mindset has been, for thousands of years, to rape, pillage, and consume any amount of excess resources that we have. There is little to no recorded history of anyone with European heritage living in a sustainable fashion. The only connection we have to sustainability is committing genocide against the populations of people who lived most sustainably with nature.
So, how could one possibly think that we can steer the ship that is consumerism, capitalism, and modern business into a new direction, when it has been on a crash course with global collapse of all life on the planet for probably a thousand years or more?
We can’t. That ship is too close to crashing. We need to completely dismantle it and rebuild. We need an entirely new way of thinking about humanity’s relationship with the one and only planet we inhabit. And we need to recognize the destruction we are wreaking immediately, before all biodiversity on earth disappears, and we are left on our own, inevitably to fight and destroy ourselves until there is no life left, and the world will have to start again.
On a recent walk, I had a conversation with Ella’s father about what it is that makes humans so incapable of noticing the problems they are creating. Our conversation led to a very simple question: Why? If more people questioned why they wanted a new convertible BMW, or why they wanted to buy a million-dollar flat in London, why they wanted to buy the most recent lip kit, or why the newest phone is what must always live in their pocket, then maybe we would start to pull out of the tailspin we are in.
I became obsessed with this question when I was younger, and my parents’ go-to answer was, “because I said so.” Maybe it was because they were busy, or maybe they just didn’t know, but their lack of answers may be what led me to question so much of what is accepted as normal in the world around us. When you ask “why?”, you are searching for a root, for a base, for the reason, and when you know the root of something you are frequently able to see a multitude of other ways of dealing with it.
The reasons for why we are where we are now are too numerous and complicated to really grasp. I could keep going about different reasons as to why I think the world needs to change, but I will stop here. In many ways, we all, consciously or subconsciously, know that things are wrong. We all notice that the bugs don’t scour the front of our cars the way they did when we were younger, and we all notice that the weather is becoming much more extreme than what it was like when we sat and watched lightning storms huddled under blankets as kids.
What we need to focus on now, is how to make it better, and how we do that is by becoming more local, more ethical, and more sustainable. By ending our support for any company that doesn’t agree. And by voting out all of the politicians that stand in the way, especially the local ones. It’s past time to do something about all of this.
Something I made recently
If you actually made it through all the writing above, I am impressed. Hopefully it was just the right amount of rant and realism. But I’ll get to the actual work now.
This month, by far my favorite item I made was a garden dibber for my sister. I saw this knot in a chunk of oak Ella and I had collected, and immediately felt that I needed to preserve the beauty of the limb that had fallen off of the tree and healed itself.
The unique colors come from the different layers of the tree’s bark, sapwood, and heartwood, as well as some spalting that had grown in the limb and likely caused the tree to drop it. This dibber is a really wonderful example of the work that I love to make, as it is a useful tool, a piece of art, as well as a reminder that nature is perfectly able to take care of itself without us.
Small, sustainable business of the week
I’m not sure if they count as a small business, but Finisterre has quickly become one of my favorite sustainable clothing brands since moving to Europe. They were started by a bunch of cold-water surfers and their styles reflect that history in every stitch. They seem to put a lot of time and effort into coming up with ways to recycle old clothes, as well as coming up with ways to reduce plastics within their lines.
The best clothing is the clothing you already own, however, if you really do need a good winter jacket, or a pair of trousers that are going to last you many, many years. Check out Finisterre before heading to your local outlet mall. Their prices are steep, yes, but the quality means that you are making an investment in quality clothing that will last much longer than the fast fashion you’re used to.
The yellow jacket I am wearing above is their Aeris reversible jacket, which is yellow on one side and blue on the other, for when your moods change as quick as the seasons. It is thick enough for coastal winter walks, and light enough to pack into its pocket and toss into your backpack for the day. I wear it all the time.
Some good news/journalism (because there never seems to be any)
I can’t really think of something positive this month, because the news seems to be only filled with horrid things. But one of the most important of those horrid things is that the US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week, and Trump and the republicans are trying to hypocritically shove through a nominee before the election, even though they delayed Obama from installing a new justice for over a year because they said the American people should decide who they want to install the next justice in the coming election. It is a perfect example of political hypocrisy in the US, but it has much, much deeper consequences for the entire world than one might initially think.
The US Supreme Court has the power to set precedent for all other courts in the US to follow. That includes laws around the climate, emissions, protection of natural resources, abortion, and basically every other deeply important issue in today’s world. If Trump is allowed to put in another supreme court justice (he has already installed two in a single term) then he will pack the seat with a deeply conservative justice who will serve a lifetime in the court unless they are impeached. This would ensure that the court would be packed with a conservative majority and means that the rule of law in the United States would likely degrade back to how it was in the 60’s or 70’s, or worse.
There’s not much that can really be done about it at this point other than putting up a hell of a fight. So if you live in the United States or anywhere else that is protesting against Trump’s packing the court with conservative justices, then get out and call your representatives, protest, and most importantly, vote for people who actually have ethical standards and are not complete sociopaths.
At the very least, read this article, which gives a great sense of what could happen if Trump gets his way.
Thank you for reading
Thank you for making it all the way through this week. I think the two-week quarantine we are embarking on is making me feel quite thoughtful. I hope, in some little way, I’ve given you something to think about this week.
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