On Tuesday 18 May 1993 I left home in the chilled darkness that hangs in the air before the dawn chorus. When I arrived in North London, at the home of Arsenal FC, it was just after 7am.
There was a bleary-eyed throng of people outside Arsenal tube station. The low sun was not yet warm, but it was cheerfully picking out the vivid red and white in old faithful scarves. As I looked up Highbury Hill past the cherry blossom trees, I could see that a queue of people had already formed in front of the ticket office. They were standing three deep across the pavement, perhaps around five hundred people in total. Their purpose, and mine, was to secure a ticket for the FA Cup Final replay on Thursday night at Wembley Stadium.
The ticket office would open at 10am, but thankfully it was a dry, bright morning and while the queue was mostly silent there was a sense of achievement and of common purpose. In our heads we had counted how many people were in front of us, and we all knew we would get a ticket.
As I stood in the queue, alone with my thoughts, I was proud of making the effort. This is what proper fans do, and I felt like a proper fan. I was literally with my tribe, outside the stadium I adored, knowing that all I had to do was wait. In a few short hours I would hold an FA Cup Final ticket in my hand and I would be part of something important forever.
In 1993 I was not a kid; I had been a qualified lawyer for six years and an in-house lawyer for four years. I was married, mortgaged and a new dad. I was a grown-up. Kind of.
There are fixed points in one’s life that mark the passing of time – going to college, getting a proper job, getting married, buying a house, perhaps having children – each step denotes a maturing of the child into the young adult and on into something properly grown-up, stable and responsible. As I stood in the queue however I was a little boy again. Hope filled my heart. The feeling of belonging to something far more important than me was almost overwhelming, but so was the sense that I had the right to belong. This pavement, at this time, in front of this beautiful old stadium was where I was meant to be.
Now it is May 2021 and as I sit at my desk writing these words, two things feel very powerful to me. The first is how comforting it is to have a true, deep and shared sense of belonging. The second is how we all have a child inside us that we need to love and honour, so that this child may guide us throughout our adult life.
We all need to belong – to our church, our family, our work, our profession, hobby groups, our sports teams or the communities where we live. It is about having shared memories, and being part of something bigger than us, but still being needed all the same. It is also about our place, our contribution, our values and our roots. It is the thread to a past that we can hold in our present and it is the same thread we know others will hold in the future as well.
If a small patch of pavement in North London, where I once stood with strangers, can evoke all of this, can you imagine what an extraordinary gift it would be to help others have a sense of their belonging too?
When we belong, we are not alone.
When we belong, we matter.
When we belong, others care that we are there too.
When we belong, our potential is given a reason to thrive.
When we belong, the child inside us is safe.
This is so important, because the child inside us is the hope we need for our future. If we can love the child within us, this love becomes the opportunity to wonder again, to be inspired, to feel the enormous possibility of life and of our lives. This love means we can suspend logic and disbelief and let hope be our guide. It allows our feelings to come to the surface to breathe rather than forcing them to be cloaked in common-sense and pragmatism. It is to dream.
Standing in a queue on a pavement, the small boy inside me was holding a dream I had held my whole life. Arsenal won the FA Cup two days later, but it isn’t the result that matters, it is the fact that I was there, and I will always be there. I belonged in that moment and that moment will be with me forever.
In our world of work, we have all manner of policies for diversity and inclusion, but a policy for inclusion is never enough on its own. It is why we must be continuously vigilant to help everyone feel more than just included. It is our responsibility to help people feel that they belong.
A policy for “diversity and belonging” would have so much more power and love than a policy simply to include.
The lad who wanted to be a lawyer who came from a humble home life, who only went to a Polytechnic and who somehow found a training contract in a country town general practice, always had a hill to climb if he was going to feel he belonged. A little while later that lad was mixing with chief executives and general counsel, and he was even more uncertain if he belonged.
I do not think I have ever said this before, but understanding these thoughts has helped me come to terms with my role as a mentor and guide. I suspect I have always carried a feeling that I did not truly belong in our wonderful and extraordinary legal profession or in the higher echelons of corporate life. I never really felt worthy enough, and as a result I suppressed my child within.
When I am working as a mentor, or if you come to our events, I sometimes sense this feeling in others too. In a way it has become my life’s work to help people feel that they can truly belong, and to allow their child within to be their guide and inspiration for their potential, forever.
Take care. Paul xx