Funny how some phrases just fall in to your lap. Funny how some just stick. Living the Dream is just such a phrase – a gift horse that was staring me in the mouth.
In the space of two days I had the polarities of Great British aspiration and disappointment writ simple and large on my storytelling wall. Our Great British M&S-stylie Prosecco & Pistachio lifestyle and its poor PaydayLoan & Pork-scratching cousin came gift-wrapped in one exquisitely simple phrase.
In a West London brasserie bar sat a woman, fashionably turned out, the odd fancy shopping bag at her killer-heeled feet, a glass of bubbles in front of her, txting furiously on her i-phone 6. Her friend appeared suddenly, looking a little bedraggled, but on seeing her shiny friend she brightly chirped,’ living the dream babes…look at you…bubbles and everything…’
And within days of the upbeat version wafting in front of me, its poor cousin appeared in North London, just beyond N1. I see a bloke, obviously far from rolling in it: a bag of DIY stuff in one hand, one child in the buggy, the other mid tantrum, on the phone to his partner/girlfriend/wife/babymamma. She is patently giving him an earful. Cue a friend of his walking past on the other side of the street who shouts ‘ Oi Tommy..Living the Dream then mate!?’. The beer-battered sarcasm of this banter simply inspired a meek self-deprecating shrug in the bedraggled bloke on the mobile. True.
As a phrase Living the Dream does what every great tenet, mantra or philosophy of any authenticity and substance should do – it easily and effortlessly embraces every extremity, turbulence, nuance, depth and not so subtle shade of the thing it seeks to define or describe – in this case the quality of life the person is leading at that very moment the phrase is deployed.
It allows enormous complexity to sit just behind it, knowingly, without ever having to say it. The back-stories of these two people were plain to see without having to set them out.
This was the power of the phrase for me.
To be fair I had been searching for one to wrap up a very UK ‘dream of better’ for a while.
We had searched for a conversation starter around a more sustainable lifestyle – one that started in the real everyday world.
In 2013 we ran 4 pilot workshops in London for the UK Dream project to that end – to find a more populist, scalable conversation to inspire a more enduring model of prosperity: a thriving vibrant life open to all, underwritten with sustainable truths.
We needed a new narrative: a new lexicon of better for people to use in their everyday lives. The old narrative was simply not working. Sustainability people speaking to themselves: impenetrable, arcane, complex, off-putting.
For most people the end of the month comes before the end of the world. They are more concerned with making ends meet than with how they might meet their end in some post-apocalyptic climate-induced catastrophe. The old narratives, rooted as they are in the activist roots of environmentalism simply do not chime with your average Joe and Jane.
So we had a chasm to cross. We needed a simple and very UK-centric or British hook that allowed us to start with simple everyday human-sized truths – What keeps you up at night? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What does good look like from where you’re standing?
In a search for this new narrative, we had already applied the 7 stage Dream-In-A-Box methodology (well, three of them at least) to try and shape what better might look like and scaling the everyday conversation around it.
We got as diverse a group of individuals as possible into a room to play with, pull down, interrogate and explore the traits, dimensions, idioms and aspirations of a prosperous life underwritten by sustainable truths. And we did it by first banishing the language of the circular economy, up-cycling, collaborative consumption (a co-created art installation project by 17th Century British poets surely) stewardship, materiality, EP&L, Net Positive and every other phrase on the trending circuit.
The most interesting and charming conversations were sparked around the old arts of thrift – smart shrewd living skills. A form of street smarts for aspirational living. people who know know…
The idea of Lighter Living. Lightening the burden on oneself (bills, cost, beyond ones means) and on the world in which we endeavour to thrive offered an overarching narrative hook that felt aspirational; breezy; cool.
So UK Dream identified Smarter lighter living represented a good beginning – positive – something one feels before one thinks it.
But we still had the tricky D word. Left to its own devices, Dream is a very divisive word, regardless of how you underwrite it; especially in Britain. On the up side everyone likes a dreamy something – we are happy to have the dream job, the dream holiday. But these are specific uses of the word that define a clear and tangible set of benefits and experiences.
Use the D word on a more rarified cultural and nationalistic level and the long shadow of John Stuart Mill enters the room at the faintest whisper of the word.
Dreams. A tyranny of pasteurized living. The death of individuality. An opiate under whose suffocating crop invention withers and spirit is anaesthetised. Dreams: the heartland of the indolent and fearful. The sharp corners and friction of individuality are what keep us alive. Not buttered populist platitudes for us to get fat on.
For the UK audience, Dream just invites the cynic and the heckler to rip it up; test its edges, even when you try and put it in a box.
Hence my search for the phrase that delivered the idea of a dream of better as part of life in the here-and-now; as measured in clear and tangible terms – a phrase that could happily ladder up or down; for better or worse; good or bad; funny or sad.
Cue Living The Dream?!
As soon as we place the ‘Living the Dream?!’ question at the top of our conversational ladder everything shifts – and becomes more human.
It allows us to engage with really simple scenarios to begin with – what keeps you up at night? the ‘mares big and small of every day life – What gets you out of bed in the morning? the dreamy stuff that makes life worth living.
This simple two pillar approach can be used to inspire conversations around identity, fashion, lifestyle, living, food & drink, education, energy, finances, technology, travel & transport, leisure & entertainment, white goods, furniture – anything. Easy conversational doors into complex nuanced stories.
It also means that we can reframe conversations that interweave multiple dimensions (usually only looked at or explored as single threads) and explore them as we find them – as slightly more chaotic jumbled buckets of conversation.
Love & Shopping
The old intrinsic nature of love and how we demonstrated it – through nurture, provision, protection, empowerment, support and belonging – has been hijacked by brands trying to inveigle their way into a lead position on our purse. We are more likely to make an active demonstration of love through a commercial transaction than we are through a personal one. The extrinsic demonstrable nature of the neu-love we now practice is making us live beyond our means.
So we find ourselves living in a culture that celebrates Saturday shopping in Westfield as an act of bonding and love. Families share in the pursuit of living the dream; even if it just loading love on a credit card for later. Every demonstration of love seems to come with a bar code: DISCUSS.
Faith & Banter
Faith has become more than just the repose of religion – faith and leaps of it are required in every corner: humanists take the leap of faith in humanity and its ability to prevail. Philosophers cross the chasm of the ontological between universals and particulars. Artists relentlessly leap from humanities to science to metaphysics to the primal with an absolute faith in the eventual ascension of something sublime. Even in brittle science, in the absence of an M Theory waiting to be revealed, they undertake a leap of faith of their own every day between the two quantum truths without a bridge to join them.
But in the UK, if you get too serious, watch your language, lighten up and Get over yourself. This is the nation of ‘taking the piss’, heckling, ribbing and anarchic banter. How does something so serious play out in a culture where to be serious is to be dangerous. DISCUSS.
Castles & Cat’s Cradle
Every man is an island and every Englishman’s home is his castle. Well, ‘ish’. Given the level of Great British personal debt, mortgage rates, the ascendence of the pay day loans, just to keep the ‘castle’ from falling down, the old securities of a fixed and stable life are fast disappearing. And as the castle walls shrink or crumble, splendid isolation gives way to dynamic connection and collaboration. We are stitching ourselves back together again in myriad different ways, finding new ties that bind. If 2008 smashed the family china and pulled down the gazebo and the politicians are fracking society who’s got the UHU?
In the gaps and cracks they leave behind new opportunities and alliances form. Run down regions and communities are regenerated. people find new purpose. Can a new more enlighted aspiration for a more enduring life rise with the cultural phoenix? DISCUSS
Wellness in an highly emerged society.
In exploring the Living The Dream conversation, we also realised that culturally, socially and systemically, the UK is so emerged it’s submerged. Simple and very meaningful topics so easily and directly dealt with in other cultures are in ours hidden inside a complex and codified landscape. Triggering conversations around these topics is a minefield: an assault course of social gaffes, trip wires, trap doors, raspberries and silences. So achieving just the right lightness of touch and integrity is critical.
The conversation around wellness and wellbeing is just such a conversation. It is not in the direct line of conversational fire. We speak indirectly of these things, usually as part of a different conversational thread. We are more likely to fall upon the topic of well-being through jokes about Stenna stairlifts, incontinence pants, supersize mother in laws, smoking in bed and Austin Power’s teeth than we are directly with a straight face.
Wellness is a supermarket trend supported by chemist brands – it is NOT a stitched in part of the great british psyche just yet. But we are getting there in our own sweet time.
This is very different to the China Dream where its emerging economy status means that health & well-being are absolutely central to the idea of what better looks like. A conversation that begins and ends with the need for something drastic to happen around air, water, food integrity and diet and their role in building a more resilient and dynamic society.
All in all, Living The Dream?! (for now at least) creates a simple conversational foundation for a bigger conversation around what good looks like and how we might get there individually, communally and collectively. Apply simple rules of smarter, lighter living at the heart of it and perhaps we might move the dial from over indexing on what keeps us up at night and start peaking again on what gets us out of bed in the morning!
All we need now is the right partners to scale the right conversation and start asking the right questions of the right people.
So any platform or brand looking for a purpose in the UK – looking for a conversation to fuel, inspire, support and celebrate – come on down. We have the beginnings of something good.
LivingTheDream is planning to undertake 10 workshops across the UK in 2015 – simply to start asking the right questions of the right people; of what better might look like for them – in their language, in their words and from where they are standing. The curated outcomes will then be shared with the constituencies of action – local communities, councils, faith leaders, collectives, interested parties, brands, institutions and organisations – to adopt, reflect and act upon to start making better a reality.
Living The Dream & the art of smarter, lighter living is an organically developing theme rooted in the original Dream in A Box UK Dream project workshops and part of a wider DreamInABox initiative which includes the founding China Dream movement run in China through NGO JUCCCE and spearheaded by the inimitable Peggy Liu; inspiration and co-founder of all things DiaB.