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My Scottish High Lands – The Ampersand February 2023

February 1, 2023

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Dear Friends and Colleagues,


After two years of Covid, and the subsequent hangover, 2023 is shaping up to be negligently over-committed.


There’s the usual.


The kids. Though now 15, 18 and 21 and mostly self-sufficient, they still require feeding, watering, sheltering, and underwriting.


The business. Now in year 14, I no longer must perform voodoo on my telephone to make it ring. Still, one can never grow complacent, and our daily toil requires vigilance.


Community. I continue to serve on two Boards and their related committees. I’m chairing a $14.5m capital campaign seeking to raise much-needed funds for Camp Chief Hector and again teaching my Business and Marketing Skills class at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law and serving as a Mentor with the Haskayne School of Business.


Friends and Family. I will always find time to continue to nurture amazing friendships, plan more Once in a Lifetime trips, all whilst worrying about, and caring for, aging in-laws and parents and trying my best to be a good dad, husband, son, brother, boss, and buddy.


Then there’s the renovation. Gutting our home of 20 years and living through a six-month construction zone with three kids and a dog. Did someone say dog? Right! Well, we now have two of them, having decided to implement a succession plan for our current nearly-13-year-old by introducing an 8-week-old puppy, Rosie, into the madness earlier in January.


On it goes.


Not looking for a pity party. Most of these diversions are self-inflicted and most, too, are mostly enjoyable. That said, it is against this backdrop that I decided to start the year with a week of planned solitude in Scotland. After a hectic family-packed Christmas break spent criss-crossing our cold country, the old country provided just the antidote. Specifically, bunking in at North Berwick, a sleepy seaside town in East Lothian, boasting great beaches and coastal scenery, and the Scottish Seabird Centre! Oh, and turns out they have golf. And whiskey, too. Who knew?


This wasn’t a soul-searching mid-life pilgrimage. At its core, it was an opportunity to visit my Son the Woodworker, Sammy, about whom I dedicated an Ampersand post exactly one year ago. Yet, save for one very memorable day spent hanging out in the workshop at school (about which I will elaborate below) and nightly dinners with Sammy at various local pubs, my days were generally spent in quiet solitude. Calgary wouldn’t awake until about 3 p.m. local time, allowing me to explore, walk, and actually think without the pings, chimes and vibrations of my phone. It was blissful.


Well, mostly blissful.


After two days of acclimatizing and familiarizing, Day Three was the day I took it upon myself to retrieve our lost luggage. Ever tried wearing daily disposal contact lenses for four days? Worse, ever tried navigating the auto-prompt menu of the British Airways / London Heathrow lost baggage automated phone system? Eventually, and feeling as though I’d wandered into Monty Python’s Argument Clinic, I managed to engage with the Eagle Aviation Courier Dispatcher, a woman so perfectly cast for her job that even I, a man with 22 years of professional recruitment experience, had to marvel at her blend of callous indifference and nearly sociopathic detachment from my plight. Never forget this: you are not the customer of Eagle Aviation Courier. The airline is the customer, the one who pays for the service. You are merely a reference number. Or more accurately, a prisoner. My inmate ID: EDIBA17761. At one point, I received a text notification that our bags had been delivered but without saying where. When pressed, the Dispatcher confessed they hadn’t been delivered at all, that the automated system “sometimes just does that” no doubt expelling a ghoulish laugh after hanging up.


And so it was, when finally – exhausted and beaten – I suggested to the world’s most perfectly employed human who not once, not twice, but three times promised to, but never did, deliver the bags, “don’t bother with the courier. I’ll come to Edinburgh myself and gather the luggage from the storage warehouse” she coldly retorted, with an emptiness in her heart, “oh, that’s no trouble at all.”  Pleased to be of service.


So I sloshed through the rain in the same clothes I’d worn on the flight over four days earlier, and slept in since, boarded the ScotRail train in North Berwick for the 45-minute journey to Waverley Station in Edinburgh where I sloshed through the rain to St. Andrew Square, boarded the Edinburgh Tram to the airport, procured a taxi to take me to nearby Eagle Aviation Courier Headquarters in a dodgy industrial park, with the singular mission of repatriating my luggage.


Finding the warehouse and my soaked bags, stapled with more tags and piercings than Marylin Manson, one of them stamped in large block letters with the word RUSH (oh, the Brits and their sense of irony), I retraced my journey back only to trudge the final 2 km along High Street from the train station (ever tried hailing a cab in a resort beach town in Scotland in January?), conjuring Cersei’s walk of atonement, pathetically dragging my beaten baggage through potholes and puddles, then scaling the three flights of stairs to my flat, triumphantly returning as though from battle. What was it William Wallace screamed in Braveheart? “Freedom!!”


I will say this, in print. Eagle Aviation Couriers is a terrible, terrible company. Possibly the very worst. Go ahead. Sue me Eagle Aviation Couriers. I’m confident you won’t be able to deliver the Statement of Claim.



But I digress.


As comically infuriating as Day 3 turned out to be, with all its frustrations and broken systems and indicia of the general decline of civilisation, Day 4 restored the delicate balance of our universe and, with it, brought a sense of pride and perspective like very few that have come before it. And it is this moment, some 850 words into the post, that I set out to write about in the first place. Damn you Eagle Aviation Courier!


For, on Day 4 of my Scottish sojourn I spent the day in the workshop at the prestigious Chippendale International School of Furniture located in a pastural setting roughly between Haddington and Gifford, about 40 minutes east of Edinburgh where my son is honing his craft. Whilst there I learned numerous indelible and wholly transferable lessons, and very few of them were about woodworking.


The most remarkable of which was the palpable spirit of mentorship, apprenticeship, and love of learning. Here you have a group of 30 students from all around the world, ranging in age from 18 (my kid) to 68; men and women; masters and novices. What so stood out was the complete lack of ego. The absolute respect for their craft and for one another. The unashamed inquisitiveness of each student on the shop floor. “What are you working on?” “Can I help?” “Have you thought about this?” “You’ll have to show me how you did that.” Living as I do in a rather sharp-elbowed white-collar world, spending much of my professional life with the high-achieving competitive climber class for whom, I dare say, the thought of a trade school is likely seen as, if not a failure, a Plan B or, at least, not Plan A, I have news. This group of students, comprised in part of a former banker, an NCAA football coach, a waterworks engineer, and my son(!), have tapped into a special sauce that I could retire on, if only I could bottle and sell it.


Maybe it’s a woodworker thing. Or maybe it’s just not a corporate thing. Whatever it was, we need more of it. The friendly ribbing tempered with a strong and unembarrassed desire to learn, to both mentor and be mentored. In the span of a few hours, I saw the student become the teacher, and back again, countless times. And while there was plenty of pride, there was no ego. It was just so damn authentic. So refreshingly honest. Genuine. It was quite literally everything Eagle Aviation Couriers, and much of the corporate world for that matter, is not. Most of all, it was cathartic and inspiring. I didn’t think I needed that sort of healing or inspiration but clearly, I did. The purpose of this trip was to provide my kid with some comforts of home, an occasional good meal, a little golf, a few laughs and the like. The idea was that I’d be helping him. Turns out the reverse was true.



My epiphany lay in their humility. As much respect for their tools as for each other. You fake it with a table saw because you were too proud to ask, you lose a hand. There’s a fridge in the centre of the shop for fingers. You know, just in case. Corporate fridges are for white wine emergencies. Reminds me of that back-country expression: “there are old guides, and there are bold guides, but there are no old, bold guides.”


One such guide was Matty. Watching Matty, the wise 36-year-old Tutor entrusted with Sammy and his small group of five (students, not fingers), circle the shop floor was like watching a surgeon in a busy operating theatre, or a great professor asking questions he knows the answers to, and offering solutions as though proffered for the first time. Never patronizing, always sincere, appearing as though that particular situation, for that specific student at that exact moment was inimitable. For it was. Though Matty had probably encountered the exact situation countless times – he himself started at the school as a student, before opening his own very successful business and then returning to teach – he approached each problem with no judgement and singular focus, not leaving the workbench until the student, and everyone gathered around, understood the problem, the proposed solution, and the way forward (for when Matty the Oracle speaks, everyone listens).


At the risk of hopping up upon my Work From Home soapbox yet again (in case you missed it), it was a stark reminder of the importance of camaraderie and the true magic of mentorship that can best be realized in person. And before (some of) you burn me at the stake like some 16th century Scottish witch, I do fully understand that for some people remote work is the only safe option, that the pandemic isn’t over, that there are many immunocompromised people for whom working from home is the only option. I get it. I swear. BUT, all I’m saying, with respect, is that sometimes I think we professional types lose sight of the basics. That transferring knowledge and wisdom from one to the next is about the most important and rewarding thing we can do for one another. And passing it from hand to hand is more effective than by email.


Another thing? That shop floor exuded more diversity, equity, and inclusion than most corporate ESG scorecards. And they weren’t doing it to prop up a share price, but rather a cabinet. The result of all that inclusion? An honest commitment to ensure no one was left behind and even though each student advanced at their own speed, in their own way, they moved along as one. That my kid was as often the mentor as the mentored delivered me a particular dose of pride, and I was reminded of that transfixed look he gets in his eyes – a look I’ve recognized since he was about three years old – when someone is telling him something, teaching him something, that is truly sticking. And when Matty spoke, it stuck.


Three final parting thoughts. First, do what makes you happy. Who says it has to be university or a professional degree or an office job? I meet more miserable wealthy professionals than I can shake a level at. Chase the passion. The money will follow. Do it the other way around and there are no guarantees.


Second, visit the site. If you are an advisor and you are paid to advise, you will glean less wisdom from a textbook or a Teams call than a site tour. I saw a remarkable thing behind the shop. You know what it was? A tree. Delivered to the school to be cut, planed, stacked, dried, and eventually crafted into a chair, a bench, a table, a future family heirloom. It started with that tree and seeing it was a reminder of the product that leads to the process that produces the result. So, if you find yourself advising, leading, or following, walk the shop floor.


Third, take some Me time. I hadn’t spent a week basically alone since I don’t know when. It was restorative and I highly recommend it.


I take back what I said earlier. The Dispatcher at Eagle Aviation Courier is not the best cast employee for a role I’ve ever seen. Matty the Tutor is. And my resolution for 2023 is to bring a little more Matty and a lot less Eagle Aviation Courier to my daily toil. More humility, patience, and empathy. More sharing and kindness. To my kids, to my business, to my community, to my family and friends.


And, of course, to my new puppy, Rosie.