A few weeks ago I was asked to talk to the UpRising Leadership programme which caters for talented 19-25 year olds from diverse backgrounds. I guess I was there as a high achiever to describe my journey and experience. Instead, to the initial shock and later amusement of the students, I explored why I may not have used whatever talent and ambition I was privileged to inherit to make the biggest impression on the world.
I am very proud to be CEO of the RSA. Alternatively I wonder if, perhaps, with more discipline and guile, I could have been a national politician and made decisions to improve the lives of millions. With more consistency I could have been a professional, maybe a doctor or a lawyer, with the knowledge and skills to help people profoundly in times of need. With more self sacrifice could I have dedicated myself to making a concrete difference to the lives of the most disadvantaged here or in the poorest parts of the word? With more focus and patience could I have been an academic working on ideas which take on a power of their own?
Instead I recycle ideas, trundle around the lower reaches of the second division of public intellectuals and try to live up the honour of running this great organisation. As well as the salary, being boss brings status. But it is oh so transitory. As all organisational leaders know, at the first staff meeting a few days after a leaving party to mark their many years of blood sweat and tears, the new boss will be reassuring an enthusiastic staff, with more or less directness, that it is time to blow away the accumulated cobwebs and march into a brave new future. All those things we fondly saw as achievements are either taken for granted or scorned.
'Is there nothing' I ask myself in sleepless nights 'that will endure?' When it comes to the RSA I derive most comfort from the slow revolution being brought about by the Fellowship. More and more Fellows are engaged, and more and more of that engagement is contributing to the Society's charitable mission. One example is Catalyst, formed a couple of years ago to provide small grants to groups of Fellows seeking to develop new initiatives or social enterprises. Every six weeks we get twenty or so bids, each of which has genuine value and of which two or three are good enough to deserve a grant. But because the sums we can provide are small we have always hoped that some Catalyst winners would go on to find funding from other sources. Increasingly, this is happening. For example, last week we heard of substantial new funding for a project in Tower Hamlets, Ladies Who L-Earn, which offers unemployed young women training and mentoring by Fellows and local business people to enable them to run market stalls for local designers.
Another aspect of change has been the concerted attempt to engage Fellows more fully in the RSA's research and development projects. Just the other day my colleague Rebecca Daddow was enthusiastically describing the many ways in which Fellows are supporting our groundbreaking work in West Kent, which aims to support the rehabilitation of people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. As our method is all about helping people in recovery to integrate as full members of civil society, Fellow engagement is part of what makes the project distinctive and powerful.
And then this week I heard that in sums ranging from thousands to fivers, many Fellows have already generously responded to our appeal for funds towards the refurbishment of the RSA's Great Room. One of the many improvements in the new Great Room will be cutting edge technology which will make the on-line experience of watching and participating in RSA events even better. There have in the last eighteen months been around sixty million global views of RSA lectures.
Many people who watch the lectures, and who read this modest blog or visit the RSA's website are not Fellows. We see spreading great ideas around the world as a core part of our charitable mission, but now, for once, I am asking those who like what we do but don't contribute as Fellows to make a concrete expression of their appreciation.
One of the symptoms of my mid life crisis has been a growing obsession with physical fitness. I ran the marathon a few years ago and am still aiming to run 10k in under 40 minutes. So when a friend challenged me to run a mountain marathon my foolish pride would not let me refuse. The Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon on June 9/10 requires me to run a marathon distance mainly steeply uphill navigating my own route and carrying a six kilo overnight pack.
As I have gradually added each ingredient of difficulty to the training - distance, incline, weight, rough ground - the scale of my idiocy in volunteering has become clearer. A trial half marathon along the cliffs of Dover and Deal last weekend left me exhausted for two days. What is more, the whole exercise is costing me hundreds of pounds on travel and kit costs.
But you can lighten my burden. I have set up a JustGiving page and I am asking friends of the RSA to help me raise two thousand pound towards the Great Room appeal.
Perhaps in twenty years’ time a grey haired man, limping slightly as a consequence of a nasty fall in the Cairngorms decades earlier, will walk unrecognised into John Adam Street and point out to his grandchildren a small patch of beautifully restored mosaic on the staircase to the Great Room. 'There' he will proudly proclaim 'I told you I had made an impression on the world'.