Mar 31


2 Responses


Helen Whitten

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We have a problem with trust.  If we’re not careful we will end up trusting almost no one – politicians, the police, the NHS, teachers, business leaders, civil servants, the BBC, the media and more.  This is surely a dangerous situation, as trust is an essential ingredient to a healthy democracy.

I believe what we have to remember in this is that there are very few people who go out to break our trust. Most doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, journalists and yes, even politicians, aim to do a good job.  Train drivers don’t intend, necessarily, to make a train late, doctors don’t set out to keep us waiting for hours on end.  The system can work against people, and we tend to be happier if we put ourselves in their situation and consider what factors are influencing outcomes, so that we don’t lose faith in the whole system.

But of course when someone does break our trust, do something that deliberately harms us, or tells us a lie, it is very difficult to regain the trust in that person again.  This is certainly true of marital infidelity but it is equally true of being involved in a business break-up, or the recipient of ‘little white lies’ where someone, whether an intimate partner or a work colleague, is not careful with the truth.  Small deceptions can very quickly lead to a loss of trust through a sense of unreliability. And this is exaggerated when someone in a position of power lies to us or fails to carry through with a promise.

The trouble then can be that if one raises the issue, that person they may either not have noticed what they said or did, or may deny what you have experienced. I think they call the latter gaslighting. If the statement or action was a genuine ‘mis-speak’ or mistake then this is easily remedied by an acknowledgement of what went wrong and an apology.  An apology will go a long way to regain trust.  But if there is no acknowledgement or mutual understanding of what went wrong it is very hard to build those bridges of trust again.

It seems to me that there has been a relaxing of the standards required of us to speak the truth, especially in relation to those in public office.  The term ‘mis-speaking’ is being used lazily and too frequently these days to justify an erroneous statement, even when the reality is that someone has told a bare-faced lie but is denying the fact rather than apologising for it. Trust is broken in such situations as the person who has lied, or mis-spoken, is disrespecting their audience to the extent that they continue to brazenly try to pull the wool over their eyes rather than accept their action. I think the spin-doctors have much to answer for in this.

We are in a tricky place on this now, too, as who are young people to trust when even teachers, lecturers and senior politicians are fudging the facts on gender and denying the biological facts of life?  It seems ambiguous if we hurl bricks at a politician who has misspoken, or directly lied about something, but let off those in authority who actually also are not relating facts accurately.  That’s not to mention Putin’s lies to his people and the world which are suggestive of a parallel universe. And now we have Trump.

The Brits are known for skepticism and a healthy skepticism has protected us so far from most cults and dictators. We are also known for fair play and a sense of honour of our word, and we have to be careful not to lose this reputation, as it impacts our economy if we are not seen as trustworthy people to do business with.

Where trust is concerned, we can also tap into our intuition.  So often we ‘know’ on some gut level whether we can trust someone the very minute we meet them.  I remember a business friend of mine who would frequently ask me to meet up with a potential business partner and give them the ‘handshake test’ as we gain clues from the felt sense of someone and how they relate to us. Another time, I remember someone who came for an interview with me who could not provide the right qualifications or references and yet I just ‘knew’ she was someone I could trust. I was right. We worked in harmony together for 44 years. But, on the whole, when we can marry up facts with our intuition we are more likely to make a wiser decision.

Skepticism is one thing and sometimes helpful, but endless negative or pessimistic thinking is another and helps very few of us as it just demoralises and can lead to people imagining no one can be trusted, which is untrue. Being critical and analytical thinkers, on the other hand, is helpful and enables us to ensure we do not generalise or immediately label a group of people as evil or untrustworthy just because one or two of them have proven themselves so.

Ultimately, we all need to trust in others within our communities in order for the world to function well. If we approach people from a perspective of expecting trouble we are immediately building barriers.  After all, there are many times when we have to let go and trust and hardly give it two thoughts – for example, trusting our local garage when they service our brakes, our airline pilots when they fly us to distant places, our surgeons when they operate on us, our neighbours when we give them the keys to our house to feed the budgie, etc. Trust is an essential ingredient to life and in order to maintain it, we have to be trustworthy ourselves, which takes self-reflection, and checking with diligence our words and actions. For if we cannot trust ourselves then all is lost. It begins with us and making sure we do not collude in the assumption that no-one is trustworthy but actually check facts before putting up those barriers of disbelief.


Mar 01


1 Responses


Helen Whitten

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It’s probably the moment most of us dreaded as we headed towards our teenage years – that moment where a parent looks excruciatingly embarrassed and starts to tell us about the facts of life. I remember my parents giving me a leaflet all about it, with rather horrible pictures and diagrams that I can still recall. I don’t think they added to this information, most of which I couldn’t, aged 10, make head nor tale of, with any real conversation. I think they scuttled out of the room as fast as they could, leaving me to try to make sense of what it was all about. I believe this is an event experienced by both boys and girls of my generation.

One thing is for sure. The leaflet was all about the physical process of making love and where babies came from. But when I say ‘making love’ there was not, in that document, anything about love, nothing about how you move towards building the trust within a relationship to get to the point where one might make love or have babies. It was just pictures of body parts and how they fitted together.

The aspiration that this moment of copulation would come because the boy and girl, man and woman, had come to know one another and love one another was completely missing from this information. And it seems to me that this situation has become even worse in the age of social media.  Despite years of discussion of sex education, I gather there is still little emphasis on mutual respect, consideration, caring how the other party feels and experiences these extraordinary intimate moments, on the various dating and hook-up apps available online.

So how are today’s teenagers learning about how to treat one another?  The Everyone’s Invited website lists countless terrible experiences to which young girls in schools are being subjected. Ratings on their bodies, put downs, harassment, so the lessons can’t be working very well. At the same time, because of this and the MeToo lobby, young boys can equally be nervous of approaching or touching a girl. For sure it can be difficult for a teenage boy to know how to approach a girl, and potentially will do so clumsily.  But the difference today is that many boys now watch porn from an early age and get very warped ideas about what a relationship is all about. This seems to be translating into them expecting girlfriends to enjoy choking, sado-masochism or violence – a recent survey reported that a third of female undergraduates aged 18-24 in America had been choked the last time they had sex. Of that group, 65 per cent said they experienced it during their first-ever sexual encounter. I really doubt that these girls enjoy this practice. And what a muddled situation this seems to place everyone in.

A few years ago, there was an excellent programme about a Danish sex educationalist who taught sixth formers here and discovered that the girls were accepting all kinds of behaviours that they didn’t enjoy, and in fact found repulsive. But the boys seemed to have a sense of entitlement and expect that the girls would like this treatment (which I won’t repeat here as it repulsed me too), and would taunt them for being frigid or boring if they didn’t go along with what the boy wanted. The teacher then taught the girls to speak up for themselves, and the boys to listen and understand that when they learnt to listen and adapt their expectations the experience was better for all concerned.

These are age-old problems but there is no doubt that social media has exacerbated them.  Statistics I heard today reveal that only 1 in 50 people looking at porn are female, that 98% of sexual crimes are carried out by men, yet that 9 out of 10 romantic books are bought by women.  This does speak of difference, doesn’t it, both in culture but also potentially in hormonal drives, between the sexes. Boys may be confused, yes, but girls are being expected to do all kinds of things that I would have found frightening and horrible.

When I read about Andrew Tate and the culture within the police force, fire brigade, military services, the casual acceptance of vile lyrics in rap, hip-hop and drill music, I become nervous that misogynism is being normalised.  Nervous at how these men, insecure, perhaps, in their resentment of the way women now have a greater voice and may be succeeding in careers and in life, are influencing young boys to resort to the humiliation and debasement of women in order to make themselves feel ok. Doesn’t the number of young men following such online monsters put the conversation onto a different scale? Surely it is time to take a long hard look at what is happening, to stop and talk with young boys about how to feel good in themselves without this behaviour? 

It must be time for a serious and much needed investigation as to why these online gurus encourage boys and men to frighten women.  Men’s physical strength anyway results in girls and women still being fearful of walking down streets at night. Men who care about women take the trouble to walk on the other side of the road so as not to frighten them. Those who get a kick out of frightening women follow them closely, taunt them.  I simply don’t believe that most young boys are violent but these cultural and online interventions could certainly be going some way towards making them so. With the horrifying statistic that an average of 1.53 women are killed in the UK per week by a current or previous male partner, we must come to understand why. Otherwise, we can’t possibly put a stop to it.

My point here is that I believe parents, mentors and teachers need to be having far more in-depth conversations, however excruciating that may be, at a reasonably early age about what respect is, what love is, what consideration and care are, and how that translates not only into words but into behaviours.  Most men and boys are decent and respectful, so let’s ask questions and try to understand why some boys and men are drawn to gurus such as Andrew Tate.  Is it that they feel vulnerable if a girl is clever or successful? If so, how can we help them feel secure enough in themselves to enjoy the success of their girlfriend or wife so that they celebrate this rather than feel diminished by it, or feel the need to diminish others?

I may be wrong, but I don’t get the impression that those awkward early moments of learning about sexual intimacy have developed much beyond that dull and confusing leaflet I was given some 60 years ago. But I fear that things have turned darker, and I am concerned for the young women of the future unless this tide of porn and misogyny is turned back. One charity that is addressing this is Tender – https://tender.org.uk/. They use acting and improvisation exercises to help young children learn empathy and practice the language required to create safe boundaries.  Why not take a look at the website, donate, or encourage your child or grandchild’s school to give them a call? We need to take action on this unsavoury trend, don’t we?


Feb 14


2 Responses


Helen Whitten

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But not always necessarily for the better, I think.  Yes, it could have saved a few chipped fingernails and tired fingers when I started my life as a secretary at Bodley Head publishers in 1968, aged just 18. The old typewriters were hard work. Punch, punch, punch on those keys from 9 to 5, fiddling with two carbon copies, tippex and erasers. It was messy and stressful when one had to redo letters but the time spent taking dictation from my first boss, Guido Waldman, an editor, was always rewarding and I learnt a great deal from watching him work and talking to him about his role.

The first IBM Golfball came along when I was working for Geoffrey Strachan, the Plays Editor at Methuen, and made the days easier and the pressure on one’s fingertips lighter.  This continued when I transferred to work for Caro Hobhouse, an editor at Macmillans. In those days letters would arrive and often not be responded to for a good four weeks.  Long lunches and phone calls were the main mode of communication with authors. One still had to book an international call to those abroad. A couple of years on, it was Caro who encouraged me to apply for a role as Picture Researcher, working for Cherriwyn Magill, the Art Director in Macmillan’s jacket department.

I loved that job. I was given a brief – the title and subject matter of the book and the kind of photograph, cartoon or painting that they might require to use as part of the jacket design. Then I would be out and about in London, going to newspaper libraries, the Mary Evans Picture Library, public libraries, art galleries and museums. I met interesting and knowledgeable people who listened to my brief and showed me various examples of paintings or illustrations that would fit the bill. Then I would return with photocopies and details of potential designs. 

If I was doing that job now, I would probably just be sitting at my desk Googling suitable images, and visiting websites. Yes, I would have access to the world’s museums and art galleries, which I didn’t have back in 1972, but I wouldn’t have to move away from my desk. I wouldn’t have met half the people I did meet or had half the fun I had.

I moved on from picture research to become historical researcher to the historian Alistair Horne, who was writing the official biography of Harold Macmillan. In this case I would be given facts he needed to clarify, dates, names, events that needed confirmation and I would go out and about in London and beyond – to Churchill’s house, Chartwell, in Kent, or Macmillan’s house, Birch Grove, in Sussex, to find letters or telegrams, to glean more information and ascertain that the facts were correct. I would visit the Beaverbrook Library, go to libraries in Oxford and pull together the details Alistair needed for the chapter he was working on. I met all kinds of interesting people and loved the experience of being in these ancient libraries, of touching in my hands the letters sent home from troops in Chechnya, the feel of parched yellowing paper, the scent of archived pages.  If I were doing that work today I probably, again, would just be sitting at my desk, able to get the information I needed from various search engines. It wouldn’t be the same.

Then I came to building my business, Positiveworks, which I founded in 1992.  There were no websites at that time so I printed brochures and walked around Richmond sticking them in letterboxes, going to various local businesses and meeting key people on training courses and on conferences. I would frequently sit next to someone at a conference on stress management or some psychological profile and that person would become my next client, or introduce me to someone who would. I am not convinced that I would have solidified those random relationships had the conferences been streamed on Zoom.

Then gradually I got used to my first Amstrad computer, to laptops, emails, websites, mobile phones. Modes of communication began to change for us all. How wrong they were when the said the internet was only for nerds!

And so the benefit of this new technology was that my network of contacts spread and I travelled to run training courses in Africa, Australia, Hong Kong, Hungary, USA, Scandinavia, Europe, Lebanon, the Middle East.  It felt a little scary at times, arriving in Nigeria to be escorted by a security guard with a gun, or landing in Beirut and having President Hariri blown up outside one’s hotel, or arriving in Bahrain often in the middle of the night, but I met so many people, can touch and taste the experience of being in those distant places that I would never have seen had I just sat at my desk providing training on Zoom.

Of course, Zoom is amazing. It is just wonderful to be able to keep in touch with clients, colleagues, friends and family on FaceTime or Microsoft Teams etc. It saves the planet perhaps but saving the planet can also be eased through personal contacts, through the friendships and alliances one builds from actually being in a room together, from the understanding that is generated by talking about life as well as business.

So now, as I wait to hear from literary agents as to whether any are interested in my novel, I am aware that their reading list of manuscripts is buried and invisible in the depths of their computer filing systems. Returning to my first days of working in publishing houses, half the pleasure was being surrounded not only by the published books but also by the physical piles of manuscripts that would sit in the corner of an editor’s office, a constant visual reminder saying “read me!” And always, always, there was a polite acknowledgement of its safe arrival and some kind of acceptance or rejection letter sent as the manuscript was returned to the hopeful author. Now everything just seems to disappear into cyberspace.

I wonder how your own working life might have been different had there been no technology, no email, no Google, no mobile phone? Would your days have been different? Would you have met fewer people, seen less of life other than through a screen, I wonder?  Or would technology have changed your working life for the better?  With every advance there may be a little something that disappears into the ether at the same time.  For myself, I am glad that Google and Zoom were not available at earlier times in my career.


Jan 08




Helen Whitten

Posted In


I wonder how you are thinking about the year ahead?  2022 was a tough year for many people, and the Covid years before it, too. We wake up to daily news of threat – Ukraine, the economy, inflation, pandemic. No other generation has ever been exposed to so much news, and often bad news, brought to them 24/7 through images from screens in their sitting room, on their mobile phones, and now I even get them on my Apple Watch. There’s no escape. The only escape we have is by taking control of our mind, in making the choices of what we choose to watch or listen to, and what we choose to pay attention to in the inevitable cascade of thoughts that run through our minds every day, and sometimes continue to keep us awake at night.

Images are powerful drivers of our feelings and actions. I don’t watch the 10 o’clock news any more because I don’t want to go to bed with a whole bunch of anxious-making pictures and messages in my head. But instead, as we start this new year, we can begin to work at creating more positive images for ourselves, our communities, the world.  Focusing on the negative simply drives us to a paralysis of fear and helplessness, especially when so many of the news stories we are receiving are beyond our immediate control. What to do about the economy, inflation, climate change, war? We can only start with ourselves. For how we act, and the energy we create around us, influences others too. And to do this we need to decide what we can Alter, what might we need to Avoid (eg the 10 o’clock news, or specific people or places that upset us) and what might we need to Accept – eg the things we cannot change, and that could be illness, as my 11-year old granddaughter demonstrates to me continually as she lives with Type 1 Diabetes with acceptance and stoicism, determined to make the most of her life.

In my experience in my own life, and in coaching others, it really works to take some time – it doesn’t have to take ages – just to jot down how you would prefer things to go for you, your family, friends, country, the world in the year ahead. The mind works continuously to bring into being the things you seek but if you focus on the negative, or if you are unclear what you are instructing it, this can lead to ambiguity and doubt. I am speaking to myself in this as we all need constant reminders of the habits that help us live life well.

The Buddha said “it’s your mind that creates your world”. Your subconscious beliefs and expectations can limit your ambitions and achievements and, when you take time to bring them up to the surface, you may find that they are not your beliefs today at all. They may be the beliefs and expectations of your parents, or a teacher, an aunt or uncle who sewed some idea in your head some time ago. We are witnessing the way we need to question our perceptions every day as we become a more tolerant society. It’s valuable continually to challenge one’s own beliefs about oneself, others, and the world, as we go through our lives, because we are not the same person at 21 that we were at 10 years old, not the same person at 40 that we were when we were at 20, not the same person at 70 that we were at 50.  The world changes around us and we need to go inward to adjust the thoughts and images we have built up over the years and update them to circumstances today – but, more importantly, to how you would like life to be, and how you would like to be within yourself. Change your thoughts and you change your world.

So, maybe take some time today, tomorrow or soon to consider what you might like to have achieved, experienced, received, enjoyed, contributed, by the time you arrive at the end of 2023. It’s always worth writing this down as it utilises another sense and the thoughts that might be jumbled in your head become more organised as you make them visual. What might you like to have changed for you, your family, your health, your finances, your colleagues, business, friends, the world? And don’t forget to visualise peace in Ukraine and justice for those oppressed. Then consider what that might physically look like? What would you and they be doing differently if this came to pass? Build some pictures, images, like a movie in your head. See it happening as you go through the year and capture an image of how you would like it all to look by the end of the year. Caption that image and let that caption rest in your mind every day to motivate your belief in yourself.

“Change your thoughts and you change your destiny”, so Joseph Murphy wrote in his book The Power of the Subconscious Mind. Mahatma Gandhi advised us to “Become the change you want to see”, which basically means acting as if you will be successful in achieving those aspirations you have imagined. Doubt simply limits us, and negative thoughts deplete our immune system so become more aware of your thinking patterns as you go through the day. What helps you feel happy and competent, what holds you back? It’s up to you. You are in charge of your mind – you have an executive brain that controls which thought or motivation you pay attention to. It’s like lying in bed in the morning where one thought leads you to stay in bed, the other thought leads you to go to the gym or for a walk in the fresh air. It’s up to you which one you listen to and act upon.

Charles Darwin wrote that “it is not the strongest of the species who survive, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” And so we have to adapt the way we think about ourselves and those around us in order to enjoy life’s different stages. As I get older, “ancient” as my grandson would describe me (!), I have to accept that I will never look as slim and youthful as I did and wonder why I didn’t appreciate what I had when I had it! So, it’s important to be thankful for what we do have to feel good about. Gratitude takes us a long way towards contentment. If we are to turn the economy around, we all need to put energy into work, innovation, and consider what the fruits of that might look like. If we are to turn climate change around, we all need to make changes to our personal habits of how we use energy. If we are to turn our own state of happiness around, we need to go inward and change the thoughts and beliefs that no longer serve us well. How we are inside translates to the personal energy we bring to a room, to the world.

None of what I write is new, but it is so easy to forget to do it. So why not take a pen and paper in the next day or two and write down how you would like things to be by the time we reach the end of the year. Then sit quietly, slow your breath, and build visual images of the changes you want to see for yourself and others. Maybe even create some post-it notes to have over your desk, or messages on your phone, or a collage of images on your fridge to remind yourself. It can be quite fun, and no one else can do it for you.  Good luck and bon courage!

Let’s, between us all, make 2023 a whole lot better than 2022.

Further reading: https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B0034OJ57S

Donate to Junior Diabetes Research Fund: https://jdrf.org.uk/get-involved/give/donation-v2/


I can still remember some sixty years ago the terror of being asked by my Maths teacher to come up to the blackboard and do a sum in front of the class. Have you experienced a similar moment, when one’s brain completely freezes and all sensible though goes out of the window?

Well, it happens frequently. Some 1 in 5 adults report having difficulty with maths, and even maths teachers report feeling fearful in front of their class.

Shirley Conran OBE, feels very strongly about this matter and founded the Maths Anxiety Trust to tackle this fear of maths. So on Wednesday 30 November 2022, the Maths Anxiety Trust held a Summit to explore Maths Anxiety in Teachers – “Are we giving our teachers adequate training in the teaching of maths?”. The audience was mainly teachers and the consensus seemed to be NO.

It was a deeply thought-provoking evening organised by Maths Anxiety Trust CEO Caroline Shott. The excellent line-up of speakers on the topic, included Professor Dame Alison Peacock, CEO Chartered College of Teaching; Sam Sims, CEO National Numeracy; Dr Colin Foster, President of the Mathematical Association; Dr Sue Gifford, Emeritus Fellow, School of Education, University of Roehampton. The chair was the ever-impressive Professor Margaret Brown, OBE, President of the Maths Anxiety Trust.

Dr Colin Foster shared his own deep fear of water. He wondered how we, as adults, can ensure we don’t pass on our serious fears to our children or pupils. Whenever he walked beside the canal with his small daughter, he tried to distract himself from fear by pointing out a duck, or the beauty of the water, and yet his daughter would ask, “What’s the matter Daddy? You look sad.” So, silence and distraction do not, ultimately, fool any child, who usually picks up one’s fear intuitively.

Colin’s question to the audience was whether it is sensible to try to hide one’s fear, when one’s silence obviously leaves a child with a negative message about fear – yet the child does not understand what the adult’s problem really is. Many of us agreed that it could be more powerful to share our concerns rather than try to hide them or bottle them up. In sharing them as adult and child, try to work out strategies – to overcome the fear.

This collaboration can certainly work in the classroom to banish the sense that anyone in the room – pupil or teacher – should experience any kind of shame or humiliation. When I recall my moment in front of the blackboard, way back in 1964, I realise now that our teacher could not understand why I couldn’t understand. So, there was no collaboration to help me work out my problem: the teacher was disappointed and I increased my fear of maths.

At this Westminster Summit, that childhood episode was translated as perhaps my teacher wanted to show off how much he knew and, consequently, he made me feel small. That approach would not help many pupils, however skilled they were at Maths.

It was agreed among the teachers present at the Summit that communication skills are essential to a teacher – and particularly a maths teacher. Former journalist Shirley Conran pointed out that a teacher can use the communication skills a journalist is taught to use. If the first question or approach you make to someone doesn’t make a comfortable connection, you must try another type of question, and then another, or a metaphor.

Given time, a practical visual tool, such as a spiral made from paper, can help find the entrance to that person’s mind. Journalists are taught that it is essential to think from the other side of the desk to find the key that opens up a connection between one person and another: instead of alarming a person about the subject of discussion – imagine yourself in the other person’s mind.

It is also important to help pupils see the value and purpose of maths, so put the exercises into a real-life context. Research surprisingly shows that helping young children between the ages of 3-5 to discover the enjoyment of maths can be a predictor of their future success in life. So, teachers and parents benefit from finding ways to make maths fun for small children. This starts them on the right track of looking forward to maths classes, rather than dreading them. Some teachers don’t help – I have heard phrases from teachers such as, “Bad luck, it’s double maths for you this afternoon”, which hardly help to spread joy!

Historically, the fear of maths – which can be cultural – has been more prevalent in girls than boys and girls get unconscious messages about boys being better at maths – which is not necessarily true but can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Own your Worth a report by UBS published in 2019, shows that women tend to defer to men and often leave long-term financial planning to their male partner – to their own detriment.

If working girls and women with male partners don’t focus carefully on their own financial numbers in terms of salary income, pension, and investments, they can find themselves financially substantially worse off in mid or later life. Certainly, in my own time as a business coach, I encountered several successful women managers who were far more hesitant to ask for a raise than their male colleagues. Similarly, many put off thinking about investing in pensions and often elected for less risky investments. Greater confidence in thinking about numbers and maths would – without a doubt – make a difference to the long-term financial security of such girls and women.

Teaching maths teachers to enhance their confidence and approach would help those teachers to present maths in an interesting way: this could make a huge difference to future generations of children and adults. This means that teachers would learn the communication skills which help find the way into each individual child’s mind.

My own childhood experience at the blackboard – when stress sent me into a frozen paralysis of thinking – could certainly help teachers understand what a little stress can do to the brain; then they might present questions in a less frightening way.

Dr Brené Brown once said “Shame loves a perfectionist. It keeps us quiet.” But we don’t want children to be quiet. As Dr Colin Foster discovered when he walked beside the canal with his daughter, silence does not necessarily disguise our fears nor prevent a child from intuitively picking them up. So finding ways of working together to problem solve, as teacher and pupil, could surely lead to a better future learning of maths. For that, a teacher needs to learn good communication skills.

For more information do look at the Maths Anxiety Trust website http://mathsanxietytrust.com/

Also I have written a short booklet for parents who have children who experience anxiety around maths. The link is http://mathsanxietytrust.com/ma_Booklet_21.04.20.pdf

For further reading: FUTURE DIRECTIONS: Practical Ways to Develop Emotional Intelligence and Confidence in Young People by Helen Whitten, Published 2006 by Network Continuum.


Nov 15


2 Responses


Helen Whitten

Posted In


When I was in my teens my father gave me The Pensées by Blaise Pascal.  I was fascinated by its combination of science and philosophy. I can’t pretend to have understood it all. After all, what did I know about life at the age of 15? Nothing. Yet his mind and his writings intrigued me and a particular passage stands out even now from the book, as it was, perhaps, the first indication that there is much in life that I shall never be able to comprehend.  Talking about infinity:

Nature is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

What does that do to your mind I wonder? My mind went into a kind of spin when I read this for the first time. It still does.  It’s like black holes, which I equally find well nigh impossible to grasp. This thought causes a sort of black hole of space in my mind as I try to think about the universe and what I am supposed to make of it in a lifetime.

Man’s search for meaning is probably as endless as our search for the understanding of the infinite. I was interested to read today in Kieran Setiya’s book Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help us Find our Way, that apparently man’s search for meaning does not come up in Plato or Aristotle, Seneca or Epictetus, Augustine or Aquinas, Descartes, Hume or Kant. They, as many other philosopher, focus more on how to live well, how to make the most of our human life.

I just saw Bill Nighy in Living, a movie about a man waking up to his true nature, to life, in the last few months of life.  He is determined, in that time, to live and laugh, and also to make a difference. His example makes a lasting imprint on some, but only some, of those around him.

Yet I think we all search for some kind of personal meaning. And that means taking time to stop and reflect on our values, on the legacy we want to leave with our children and grandchildren, on the fact that the world is full of wonder and, if we appreciate it, then we can give time to consider what we might contribute towards it, in our own small way.  I find there is so much spoken now about ‘rights’ that people seek to get from governments, and far too little about ‘responsibilities’, and what we can each do to contribute, to make life in our country more prosperous or enjoyable. My goodness, do we need it now, that pulling together towards rebuilding the economy post-Covid, post-Ukraine and in the midst of global economic challenges.

As I think of the senselessness of the war in Ukraine I am reminded of Pascal’s statement about young men meeting at a border. In one situation they would be friends, in another enemies.

We must kill them in war, just because they live beyond the river. If they lived on this side, we would be called murderers.

This is so true of Ukraine and Russia, who share so much history. And I read today that, inevitably, the consequence of this war has been to emit horrendous toxicity into the universe. Just what no human being needs.

And if we do all die out, I turn to another wonderful book, given to me by my dear departed friend Bruce – The Human Situation by W. Macneile Dixon. In this, Dixon writes of the concept of the planets and galaxies of the universe churning away for millennia whether we are here to watch, wonder or measure, or not.  This sends my mind into the same black hole of life’s mysteries as Pascal!

It’s a miserable rainy day here in Kew but I am sure there are things we can all wonder at, nonetheless, despite the ghastly news, things we wish to do with our lives, books we want to read, or re-read?