Why keeping a journal of events is a good idea

I’ve been keeping a journal for nearly 16 years and each day, no matter how tired I am, I key in the day’s activities and my reflections on them into my laptop. I even did so during my time in hospital with Covid earlier this year, including when I was at my weakest.

I started writing such journals while I was in London undergoing several weeks of radiotherapy treatment. I was told I would feel increasingly tired, so I thought it would be a good way to keep engaged that didn’t require much energy. As it turned out though, my strength sustained and I became an enthusiastic tourist around town, offering me much to write about.

When I returned to Nairobi I continued journalising my life, and it simply became something I did each day, like checking my mails or brushing my teeth. Every three months I design a cover page to the volume covering the previous quarter, with a suitable title and picture, and I write an introduction. I then take it on a memory stick to my “publisher” in Sarit Centre, where I have it printed and spiral bound.

The quarterly volumes – now 64 in number – have evolved over time, with more pictures and more elegant and varied layout and content. They have also tended to become longer, typically now exceeding 200 pages.

So for whom do I do it, and why? I do it for me, which means that what I write can be uninhibited and personal. As for why, there are multiple benefits, the most obvious of which is not forgetting anything I’ve been up to or my reactions to it. So if I ever get round to writing my memoirs, at least this period of my life is trapped as raw material from which a finished product can more readily be produced.

I particularly treasure writing about the hardest of times, or engaging with a really unpleasant character. (Extreme cases drive me to poetry.) The writing helps to distance me emotionally from the experience, as I become more of an objective observer, and the worse the situation the more therapeutic is the writing. Travel writers (and I have enjoyed being one) find that awful journeys result in the best scripts. But awful or wonderful, what is a journal but an account of one’s journeys through life?

Many of my articles for this column result from what I do in my professional life, and my journal entry on the subject is likely to be the first step, which I then adapt (and sometimes sensor!) appropriately.

The idea for writing this article came from Josphat Mwaura, who recently posted on his LinkedIn page the link to a Harvard Business Review article titled The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal, by Dan Siampa.

In it Siampa writes that he started keeping a journal when he took over a manufacturing research, software and consulting firm.

“I was very young, we were in crisis facing a challenging market, and I wasn’t sure whom I could rely on,” he remembers. “I kept a journal through my 12 years as chairman and CEO and have since recommended it to people moving into any senior position for the first time.”

Like me, he found the quiet reflection that occurs during journal writing to be very valuable, allowing for calm analysis and creative thinking.

“Journal entries should provide not only a record of what happened but how we reacted emotionally,” he agrees with me, adding that “writing it down brings a certain clarity that puts things in perspective.” It can also be “a form of mental rehearsal to prepare for particularly sensitive issues where there’s no one to talk with but yourself,” he says.

In my coaching work I sometimes suggest to my clients that they keep a journal as a way of keeping tabs on the progress they are making relative to what we will have discussed and agreed together.

So if you are not a journal writer do also consider becoming one – however busy you may be. Indeed the busier you are the more beneficial standing back from the 24/7 pressures of deadlines and dilemmas and decisions is likely to be.

Morality through the eyes of chief rabbi

I have been reading an amazing book by an amazing man. The title of the 2020 book is Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and its author is Jonathan Sacks. Sacks rose to become the Chief Rabbi of Britain, and was known as one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.

He was knighted in 2005, and was later awarded a lordship. Lord Sacks died in November 2020, the year in which his last book was published. His first rabbinical appointment was at the Golders Green Synagogue in North West London, just a few miles from where I was brought up. He was appointed there in 1978, a year after I moved to Kenya, but I have since heard him speak on BBC – which was always very rewarding.

His morality book is so consistently informative and thought provoking that I felt like quoting every other sentence. In it he worries about the current unfortunate move from “We” to “I” in the West, with liberal democracy threatened by the demagoguery of populism (as personified by Trump’s election in America and the Brexit battle in Britain). Public discourse has grown toxic; family life has been breaking down, and drug abuse and depression are on the rise, particularly among youth.

The book takes us back to how morality has looked from the time of the hunter-gatherers to the philosophers of ancient Greece and through the subsequent centuries until today. His gloomy contemporary analysis relates in particular to Britain and the US, but as soon as I saw his distinctions between the “We” and the “I” I immediately thought of Ubuntu as capturing the spirit of the former and of our Kenyan scenario as reflecting too much of the latter.

Relative to those in many other African countries we Kenyans tend to be more individualistic, materialistic and aggressively competitive, and our politics reflect the same never-ending zero-sum squabbles as Sacks writes about in his world. It’s why despite him never referring to Ubuntu or to Africa more generally, so much of what he describes is as relevant for us as it is for his Western readers.

He traces today’s crisis to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and to our promotion of self-interest over the common good. We have “outsourced” morality to the market and the state, he complains, but neither is capable of showing us how to live. Sacks shows that “there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility,” arguing that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.

He comes down really hard on the liberal revolution of the 1960s, the “Swinging Sixties” of my youth, which championed individual freedoms over traditional values. It was the time of “free love”, the time when smoking marihuana became all the rage. For many, life was all about self-indulgence and instant gratification, about rights over responsibilities.

He also blames the deregulation of the 1980s that defined the economics of Thatcherism and Reaganomics; and the austerity policies that followed the financial crisis of 2008. All this has led to increasing inequality, with many being left behind.

Sacks shows how the “culture climate change” of migrating from “We” to “I” has seriously undermined the moral foundations that once held us together, and it is what led to many of the societal problems with which we are grappling in this 21st century.

So is there hope for a future with a stronger moral underpinning? For the late Chief Rabbi the answer, as it always has been, is to work from the bottom up, through the family and the community, through small groupings where the blight of urban and national anonymity is absent.

He recognises the higher levels of morality shown to be displayed by those who regularly attend places of worship, and by those who are active in voluntary organisations. And he emphasises the vital importance of building high-trust relationships, not least in business – the contemporary idea that one can simultaneously do well and good.

There’s some talk in Kenya about living our national values and developing a national ethos, including in the BBI. But there’s woefully little on that from our leaders. So it’s up to us, you and me. In our families, in our communities and in our workplaces; in our places of worship and where we volunteer.