About talking, and being scared

I’m on tour in Singapore for the next fortnight and the iPad isn’t really cooperating so I’m going with the flow and keeping it simple. A short text post this week, therefore.

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication and dialogue. Last night I had a long, intense conversation about moral theology, doublespeak, homosexuality and transgender issues, the principle of double effect, relativism, and diagnoses of madness coming ever closer to the boundary of ‘normal’. It got slightly charged at some points, and if I had been feeling vulnerable, the way in which my language and opinions were criticised would have cut pretty close to the bone. In the past I have mostly shied away from discussions like this as I have always felt unable to confidently articulate what I believe – I have felt intimidated by what I perceive to be others’ superior knowledge or intelligence. As it was, I think I held my ground. I asked questions and sought clarity, and was forthcoming in expressing my objections about the language of some of the criticism. My interlocutor withdrew the term of criticism that I’d taken exception to. We found we agreed on more than we may have initially thought, and politely respected each other’s positions where we disagreed, recognising that our different life experiences and influences will have shaped the views we hold. The me of five years ago would have avoided engaging with what turned out to be a rather valuable conversation in the end.

Separately, Trump and Kim are coming to Singapore next week for what will undoubtedly be an interesting conversation. And separately again, a close friend is having a meeting this week which is really significant in terms of opening up the channels of communication for important future dialogue.

What determines the quality of our interactions? We all come to the table with various assumptions, preconceived notions, biases, hopes and expectations. Sometimes we take risks in entering that dialogue. Sometimes potentially major ones, in the case of North Korea vs America chez Singapore, but more often than not, the risks we perceive are simply to our comfort and emotional and psychological security. To put it bluntly, on some level, when it comes to conversations that are emotionally charged in some way or which can trigger our insecurities, lots of us are scared.

So what do you do, if you are? Well, in the words of Susan Jeffers, face the fear and do it anyway. We don’t get less scared through avoidance; we get less scared through accepting that we’re scared and then engaging with the fear, because you need to practice to get better at anything. Progress can be slow, but you don’t grow unless you start the journey. Three things that have helped me: learning how the art of questioning can help you; being absolutely clear about what you think and what you want (if you’re going into a conversation with a purpose); and realising that you often know more than you think about any given subject.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Drop me a message!

Awareness

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I’ve been doing a fair bit of mindfulness meditation recently. Last week I went for a walk in Tocil Wood and the bluebells were still going strong. I was listening to a guided walking meditation and it reminded me that it was natural and ok for my thoughts to be wandering. I did notice them wandering several times, but each time I simply reminded myself of what I was seeking to focus on, and brought my thoughts back.

It occurred to me that this is very much like life in general. I’ve posted before about the chaos theory of careers, and how we shouldn’t expect to continually be on the path that we may have mapped out for ourselves. On the road we will see things off to the side that catch our eye. There will be holes in the path, and unexpected diversions. The important thing is not dogged faithfulness to the road but the awareness of when we are travelling away, and the ability to stop and correct our direction of travel as required.

Choose happiness

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When are you going to be happy? When you get there? Or when you realise that happiness is already here with you for the taking – and all you need to do is choose it? Yes, I’m telling you that you can choose to be happy. If you don’t know how, come work with me and find out.

Photo: Happiness Ahead, Silvia Otte

Attachment and detachment

IMG_7338In the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to people about the difference between a goal-oriented mindset and a systems mindset, and the difference between commitment to action and attachment to the outcome of that action.

I recently learnt about two terms in Ancient Greek, telos and skopos. The distinction is that, unlike skopos, telos suggests an end or goal not in the sense of the thing you aim at, but rather your aiming at that end. In other words, telos = doing or getting something, and skopos = the thing done or begotten.

I like this distinction because the way in which we set goals for ourselves can affect our motivation and sense of achievement. To give an easy-to-visualise example – if you were an archer learning to shoot, your skopos might be to hit a bullseye, whereas to shoot well might be your telos. Similarly with the difference between aiming to lose twenty pounds in two months and eating well every day, or making a million pounds vs. building a business that’s true to your values. Your telos is absolutely within your reach, but your skopos is likely to depend on factors not always within your control.

So what’s the lesson? The importance of learning to detach yourself from the results of your actions. Another way you might choose to look at this is learning to appreciate the process, not just the outcomes. Achievement is not always marked by the tangible and the concrete. And life should not be viewed through the lens of success and failure, but rather in terms of all the experiences that make you who you are.

I choose everything

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What do you think of when you hear the word ‘acceptance’? If we can’t undo or change something, we need to learn how to accept it, rather than living in the ‘what-if’ and the ‘if-only’; all this serves to do is freeze and frustrate us and stop us from taking positive and meaningful action. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation, and it doesn’t signify giving up. It means understanding that this life has a rhythm, a heartbeat; space for both the beautiful and ugly, both pain and joy. I like the way St. Therese of Lisieux puts it: “I choose everything.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I choose this life. I choose everything.

What motivates you?

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A little while ago I posted about the book Drive (Daniel Pink) and the ‘motivation trifecta’. The idea is that, in contrast to the (outdated) carrot-and-stick paradigm, we’re all catalysed by basic drives to achieve three things: autonomy (the desire for self-direction); mastery (the desire to keep getting better at something that matters to us); and purpose (the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause). In brief? We want to be good at something that has meaning for us, and to be allowed to get on with it.

There’s a great summary in the video below (adapted from a talk given by Daniel Pink at the RSA).

When it comes to work, I like to equate autonomy with being given a licence to operate. One of the (suite of) very appealing things that self-employment has brought is that I no longer need to navigate a host of red tape to get things implemented. Employers take note – if you spend time on recruiting the right staff, then let those people do their jobs without being micromanaged. Trust that they know how to consult on and mitigate any major risks, and let them ask for forgiveness for the minority of things that might go slightly wrong, rather than require them to ask for permission for the things that should be within their remit and control.

Outside of an organisational context, I like to think of the principle of autonomy in the context of the control you have over your life. Working with clients, I often introduce concepts relating to constructionism and narrative: becoming the author of your own story, rather than acting out or directing a script that someone else has created for you.

With mastery, the starting point is the flow state, where the challenges you’re faced with are aligned with your abilities so that you’re doing tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult (aka ‘Goldilocks tasks’). It’s the space where peak experiences live: where you lose track of time because you’re so in the moment; where you’re absorbed in what feels effortless and thoroughly enjoyable; where you’re using your learned and innate skills and abilities, everything is going well, and you know you’re going to be successful.

You flow in the moment, but mastery emerges over a much longer period – months, years, decades. Hence Pink’s first law of mastery: mastery is a pain. Grit isn’t the easiest thing to learn, but it’s a vital companion to talent.

The second law of mastery is mastery is a mindset. If you’re not familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on the importance of cultivating a growth mindset, it’s definitely worth taking a look at. Building on the first law, the growth mindset says that innate talent, intelligence and ability is just the starting point, and needs to be augmented and developed through learning and effort. Believe that you can, work for it, and success is within your grasp.

My favourite’s the last law, though: mastery is an asymptote.

This one’s for all you perfectionists out there. Just like an asymptote, mastery is something that you’ll approach, but never quite reach. So reach for it, if you will, but gain your joy from the pursuit and don’t get discouraged when it eludes you.

Finally, on the question of purpose: what meaning do you seek, and what purpose does your work fulfil? If your core values aren’t met by your work, are they aligned with something you are pursuing elsewhere in your life? Do you know how your work contributes to a larger cause (and do you care about that cause)? If you’re yearning for something, to do what you do in the service of something larger than yourself – go and find out what that something is. And then go get it. Life is too short to keep thinking you should be doing something worthwhile, yet not doing anything about it.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Pink’s motivational trifecta?

The power of positivity

IMG_7257The power of visualisation and deciding to be positive. I received lovely feedback from some clients a couple of weeks ago who said that they found me very energising to be around! I do find that positive energy is infectious – not just for those around you but for yourself. It is possible to decide to be happy. There are lots of things we can’t control, but we are certainly in control of how we choose to react and relate to the world. Decide to be positive, and you start to attract positivity.

Photo: Photo: From “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, Scott Adams

Career: Capitalising on chaos?

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We talked about the chaos (Pryor and Bright) and planned happenstance (Krumboltz) theories of career at Quiet Space’s inaugural career reinvention day last Saturday. Only briefly, because career development theories aren’t really the best thing for a post-lunch slump (unless you are a geek like me).

I quite like chaos as a conceptual backbone to careers theory. In a nutshell, the chaos view of careers says that you and I are complex systems who are subject to complex influences and chance events. It’s all about unpredictability and non-linear, continual change. Planned Happenstance similarly embraces the idea of serendipity and being open to uncertainty, maximising your ability to capitalise on unforeseen opportunities when they happen in your life.   

More traditional theories of career development typically invoke some sense that career can be logically planned and the plan then followed. In contrast, chaos and happenstance shift the perspective from prediction and control to saying that indecision and not knowing are in fact part and parcel of living well within our complex and changing reality.

This is not to say that life is random. Instead you might like to think of life, and career, as a fractal… starfish.

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I like fractals. They’re infinitely complex systems created by the recursion of a simple process over in an ongoing feedback loop. As an analogy for life, I think the fractal starfish is pretty spot-on – daily life can be so simple, yet so complex and beautiful. Just like the emergence of a fractal, life isn’t predictable, but needs to be understood in the context of the multiple possible and interconnected outcomes of a dynamic process in a complex system.

Growing up, I wanted to be an archaeologist, psychologist, astronaut, teacher. Aspirations directed me into triple science before I funnelled myself into the arts and social sciences, via a college that I only went to because the other one I liked was too far away and I didn’t want to go to the same college as my overachieving elder sibling. A scholarship scheme that I discovered by chance gave me one of two coveted full overseas university scholarships throughout the duration of my degree, before the Asian financial crisis prompted me to stay in the UK for graduate study and my first job. I found myself in University administration after an initial research post, simply because I wanted a permanent fixed-term contract. They were recruiting for two possible jobs via the same interview process and I secured the one that would eventually prove to give me greater visibility and profile, because of a hunch from the hiring interviewer about best fit. Between 2004 and 2017 I found myself in four different jobs, all internal moves (none of which I was interviewed for), chiefly due to the right connections and being in the right place at the right time. In 2016 I had a mental health crisis that had been brewing for a while, which I can link directly to seizing hold of the day and taking the plunge to launch a new career in coaching in 2017. And I feel like I’m finally where I want to be. Will what I’m planning right now materialise the way I’m currently envisioning? Probably not. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m making the most of the journey, always focusing on continual learning and growing, and being comfortable with not knowing.

Both the chaos and happenstance theories of career talk about the kind of skills that we can develop to allow ourselves to best take advantage of those unexpected opportunities when they come our way. In brief, these are:

  • Curiosity – has an appetite for learning and for seeking out new knowledge and experiences
  • Persistence – tenacious; not easily discouraged or daunted by failure
  • Flexibility – adaptable and open to change; able to cope with the unfamiliar or unexpected
  • Optimism – has a positive mindset and is able to take the best out of situations
  • Risk – has a healthy and confident attitude towards the management of risk
  • Strategy – is able to plan ways to improve their ability to influence and capitalise on chance events
  • Efficacy – has confidence in their ability to take control of their own life and the belief that luck and circumstances need not determine their destiny
  • Luckiness – believes or expects to be lucky.

If you look back at your own career, how much of it would you say has occurred by planning and design? And how much by circumstance, accident or sheer luck? Did you find your way to where you are now having planned for it? Could you have predicted what factors would have underpinned your future career decisions? Do you have regrets about any decisions you’ve made, or do you take the view that each choice you’ve made, though you didn’t know it at the time, has led you inexorably to where you are?

A curated collection of books

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Someone asked me today what books I like. So here’s a (curated non-fiction) list. They’re thought-provoking, often funny, and are all worth a read.

In no particular order:
1) A Sense of Direction – Gideon Lewis-Kraus
2) The Pilgrimage – Paulo Coelho
3) The Examined Life – Stephen Grosz
4) Drive – Daniel Pink
5) Happiness – Will Ferguson
6) Quiet – Susan Cain
7) Stand Firm – Svend Brinkmann
8) Not Knowing – Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner
9) The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson

Have you read any of them? If you didn’t like them as much as I do, tell me why!

Make your own happiness

Happy International Happiness Day everyone. There’s one photo here for the hopeful and optimistic, and one for the cynics among you, courtesy of Modern Toss (that’s most of the people I know, then).

The serious message: don’t expect things or others to give you happiness. You’ve got to create your own. You, and only you, are responsible for your happiness.