blog, creativity, productivity

Is Self-Help Really For Everyone?

think before you choose your guru

helping-up_sasint
sasint via pixabay

Make the most of yourself….for that is all there is of you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-improvement is everywhere. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and popular non-fiction niche on Amazon. There’s no shortage of people telling you how to achieve success in life, just like they did.

Picture person A, your typical guru. He’s young and healthy, with a bright smile and muscular arms peeking out of his short sleeved tee-shirt. He wakes very early, meditates, then writes in his gratitude journal before exercising. One cold shower later he’s ready to crush it! He has a blog, a book, and a course you can buy.

He has daily, weekly, monthly and life goals, and reviews them every week.
He reads. A lot. Business books, biographies of the famous, maybe a little light philosophy like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.

Does this sound like you?

Or are you more like person B? You drag yourself out of bed, rushing around to get children and pets organised as well as yourself, before fighting with a million other commuters on your way to do something soul-crushing that pays the bills.

You haven’t read anything more than a headline in months, and evenings are a chance to collapse in front of TV before you do it all again. If you do read, you want light relief from all the stuff that weighs on you, not long words and tough concepts.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more like the guru. The real question is, are self-help gurus the best guides for people like person B?

The Past Is A Different Country

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Memory is a tricky beast. Rather than fixed rail tracks, memories are more like paths worn through grass that are slightly different each time. Memory is approximate, and the passage of time makes it more so.

This means that when people look back to see how they arrived where they stand, it’s difficult to see the exact route. There are mileposts where something significant happened, and those memories are stronger. But there are also many days without particular events, and those are harder to recall.

Recall isn’t the same as a recording. We tend to over emphasise some points and downplay others. Some memories fade with time, making others look brighter, and often we tend to rose-tint the past.

So when someone tells you how he got from there to here, his account is likely to be distorted by emotion and time. Also he might downplay the difficulties or lucky breaks he had to make the journey seem more achievable.

Person A is an unreliable guide to his own history. We all are.

All Things Being Unequal

Photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

You can’t get there from here.

There are assumptions baked into most self-improvement schedules. Person A tells you that he reached his current position by following specific rules and behaviours, and you can do it too.

But can you?

Maybe your 5 o’clock morning is dark and cold for most of the year, and/or you’re up most nights with a child so need all the sleep you can get.

Maybe you’re not blessed with a mesomorph build and fast metabolism that responds easily and predictably to diet and exercise.

Maybe you have medical or physical challenges that make yoga a huge challenge.

Maybe you don’t have the temperament for introspection and you’ve never kept a journal in your life.

We all have different handicaps and starting points. There’s no level playing field in life.

The question is…what do you do about that?

Before You Climb, Sit Down

Never ask advice of someone with whom you wouldn’t want to trade places.
Darren Hardy

You can and should challenge yourself to be better in pursuit of personal growth. But your journey isn’t exactly the same as mine, and there’s no single route to the goal.

Even more important, you need to be sure you’re climbing the right mountain for the right reasons. Only then should you pick a guide.

Your peak might be Everest or Kilimanjaro. You might aim for the very top or be satisfied to reach the foothills. Each requires different techniques.

Are you looking for inner strength, resilience, or a specific skill?

Get clear about what you want. Try the following, and if one doesn’t work try another.

1. Journaling is a reliable route into your innermost thoughts. It doesn’t have to be done first thing though. After dinner or before bed are good times to jot down a few thoughts about the day and what’s currently missing from your life.

If the idea of keeping a diary is a turn off, try this; once a week, write a list of the things that would make your life better. After six or eight weeks, see what comes up repeatedly. That’s a clue.

You could also try the future you exercise. Think about a future where you have everything you want. What does it look like? What are you doing, and with whom? Where are you living and how? Write it all down, in detail. This helps to crystallise the targets you’re aiming at.

2. Meditation is popular for stress reduction, improved mental health, and gaining insight. But you don’t have to do it in one specific way. The aim of meditation is a single point of focus to clear the mind. You can gain benefits from as little as ten minutes, as long as you practise regularly.

Apps are good for getting you started, but you can reach the meditative state through exercise (walking, swimming, running), prayer, or simple repetitive actions like washing or sweeping. Even focusing on the water raining down in the shower might work.

Or you can chant and focus on a candle flame. Do whatever works for you. The insights come not during your session, but later when your subconscious has had time to work out answers to the questions of what you want or need.

3. Talking might appeal more than endless navel-gazing. Choose your listener with care. You want someone who knows you well, but with less baggage and expectations than your mother or childhood friend.

A pet can be the best listener. They don’t interrupt and stroking them lowers your stress level as a bonus.

However you do it, form a picture of where you want to be. The question is, who will get you there?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Are You Gonna Go Their Way?

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.
John C. Maxwell

Once you know what you want specifically, look around at the people offering guidance. Are they where you want to be? Did they share some of your challenges at the start of their journey?

If you can, look inside the range of books on offer. Is the writing easy to read? You might prefer an upbeat can-do style or something more measured.

Don’t automatically buy the best seller of the moment. Of the top twenty best sellers in self help on Amazon UK, only five are by female authors and one of those is about tidying up. Different authors have values, insights and goals that might not align with yours at all.

This can make the difference between success and failure. You must adapt the method to your unique circumstances and problem solve ahead of time.

If you have primary childcare responsibilities, pay attention to what the guru says about their family. If childcare doesn’t factor into their morning routine, ask yourself who is going to handle that in your life. Either someone else has to do it, or you’ll have to work around it.

If you’re not a lark, or you already rise at five to commute, the morning routine could shift into an evening routine. Try listening to books or podcasts while travelling. You could give up an hour a day of mindless TV in favour of working on your development.

Exercise is good for everyone, as long as it fits with your routine and current level of fitness. Don’t think of it as an all or nothing game. Simply walking has benefits if you do it regularly, and over time you can move on to more intense exercise in a gym or at home.

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
Martin Luther King

Start at the lowest comfortable level and set yourself up for success. Consistency is more important than intensity. Don’t overload yourself with too many changes at once. It’s still worth improving just one aspect of your current status quo, and the next change will be easier.

Choose Your Piece of the Pie

To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Arthur Ashe

We can all be better versions of ourselves, but we have to be real about the process. Self-help is a crowded arena and every guru promises success with their methods. But you’re an individual and one size never fits all.

Remember caveat emptor — buyer beware. You don’t have to take on every suggestion — and you don’t have to do it all on day one.

    • Get clear about what you want.
    • Survey the options on offer.
    • Seek guidance from someone who’s overcome challenges similar to yours.
    • Make sure the guru stands where you want to be.
  • Adjust the route to fit your own needs and preferences.

There are many ways up the mountain — go find your best path.


Comment or question? Leave it below and I’ll answer.

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

The Beyoncé School of Being A Masterfully Creative Artist

How to delight your audience

Beyonce Dublin 2016
Beyonce at Croke Park Dublin

 

In 2016 I went to see Beyonce in Dublin. It was one of the best lessons in pleasing your audience that I’ve ever been given.

We may inhabit the same planet, but Beyonce lives in a different universe. She flew in from London that day after watching Serena Williams win her seventh Wimbledon title. Then she performed at Croke Park in front of 75,000 fans.

Her show was an amazing spectacle. There were lasers and dancers on water. There was fire and fireworks. There was the feeling that comes from being part of a huge crowd, all of whom are focused on enjoying the same thing; a global superstar.

Yet her show wasn’t what I expected.

The Hero’s Promise

When you connect with your heroes through their work, you have certain expectations. When those expectations are met, you’re satisfied. If they’re not met, you’re disappointed.

Your feelings about that experience shape your future choices. If you’ve seen a movie, read a book, or attended a concert by someone you admire, you know how that plays out.

“That was amazing, can’t wait for the next one!”
Or
“It was all right.”
Or
“What a waste of time, next time don’t bother.”

All these responses are mediated by dopamine.

Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain. It lights up the pleasure centres when we do something that feels good, and prompts us to repeat the behaviour.

Our brains have evolved to reward us when we engage in behaviour that improves our survival, such as drinking water, eating, and procreation. Nowadays we also seek dopamine hits elsewhere, in activities like shopping and gambling. For our brains, it’s all the same thing; if it feels good do it, then seek it out and do it again.

But what’s less well known is that dopamine also plays a part in avoiding negative emotions. Your brain learns from experience and steers you away from those that felt bad before.

When you get what you expected, you get a dopamine hit. But it’s much larger when you encounter the unexpected. That’s why novelty is so important in life. That’s why gambling machines pay out unpredictably. Gamblers are hooked by a small win, and play on compulsively in search of the biggest win and the ultimate dopamine rush.

Why does that matter and what does it have to do with a pop concert?

No Rest For The Best

Beyonce is a global phenomenon. She could have milked the adoring crowd, played a few of her many wonderful old hits and forced a smile. She didn’t do that.

Instead of resting on her laurels, she raised her game.

She gave us more. More dancing, more costume changes, more new material. More dopamine hits.

We were dazzled by a smile that looked genuine and a gorgeous show that was underpinned by tons of hard work. She gave us her best and lived by her work ethic.

Her ethic says create a wonder, send it out into the world, then create another. Her ethic pays attention to the tiniest detail that 99.9% of consumers miss, but delights the 0.1% who notice.

Her ethic says, “My audience turned out for me, and I am sure as hell turning up for them.”

This is a creative philosophy we can all get behind.

Delight Is Tough


The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.
Pearl S Buck

Building a body of work is hard. You have to keep going through stress and doubt and blocks. You have to go to your audience, shout for their attention, and then continue to deliver to keep their attention.

Isn’t it tempting to rush through and cut corners? To say that will do and send it out anyway? That’s a mistake.

While you absolutely must ship your work and avoid the perfectionist trap, it’s even more essential to maintain your standards. And to grow as a creator, you must push your limits and raise your standards over time.

When you under-deliver, you risk turning people away from your future offerings. They won’t necessarily give you a second chance unless they’re one of your true fans – or feeling generous.

When you over-deliver, casual observers eventually become fans who will amplify your message by sharing it with enthusiasm.

The better you get, and the more you surprise even yourself with the quality of your output, the more pleasure you’ll have in your work. Put care into the details, and someone else will notice and smile.

One of the joys of a good set of headphones is hearing all the intricacies that artists put into their music. Even though none of it can be heard on the radio or at concert volume, it’s there if you look for it.

So to create delight, do more than is expected. Add extra information and references to blog posts. Layer meaning in every name in your fantasy world. Use the language of flowers in the bouquet given to your romance character.

Don’t take attention for granted because novelty really does wear off. Try to find that extra 5% when you can, because it amplifies the whole experience for those who see it.

The unexpected brings us joy. We’re wired for it.

Give us your best – plus a little extra we didn’t predict, to keep us coming back for more.


Comment or question? Drop it below and let’s talk.

blog, creativity, poetry, productivity

Making my way

StockSnap via pixabay

It’s getting cooler now, autumn truly setting in as what’s left of summer fades away. Rain trickles down the windows. I stare out at the grey sky, and I don’t know what I’m doing or why.

I begin work.

Sometimes nothingness and oblivion are far more appealing than they should be. Have I had a good life, someone asks. I’ve been good. I’ve done good. Followed the rules. Not made a fuss.

I don’t know if that is a good life. If it is good for me.

I keep working.

It seems futile, shouting into the void, scratching symbols on the sand for the tide to wash it away. Hurricanes blow away human constructions, suck the very ocean from the earth. People talk feverishly of end times, booking places in the lifeboat of faith. They know they will be saved. All seems futile, all comes to an end, why not here?

I have not come to an end. I wake, and it is another day, and I go on working.

There are lean times, and times of plenty. There are droughts, and oases of green. There are things made of grey, and nothings made of black. There are places where all these co-exist, a Schrödinger dimension of ideas. My head is one of these places.

In the midst of death and endings, my fingers sprout new lives and beginnings that never were. I build word bricks into sentence walls and so construct whole cities of fanciful notions, airy and insubstantial and leaden. If I don’t spit them out they weigh me down and I drown in a sea of tears.

I must work.

Fly my pretties, out into an uncertain world of indifference and pain. Let me birth you one by one, sit gasping and bleeding in the road, then catch my breath and move on, never looking back. Another cuckoo grows within. I sleep, and life comes to me again with dawn. I rise, weary.

The work compels me.

If I have material or if I have not, it is the same. It is only the work, the creation, the what if spur in my flanks, that gives meaning to the day. I may turn my back, but it is always there.

And so I’m doing the work.


 

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

Learn to Love Frustration

beating the block isn’t what you think

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?

Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.

Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.

All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.

It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.

So Close

Expectation is the mother of all frustration.
Antonio Banderas

You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.

The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.

Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.

If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.

Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?

We struggled. Every one of us.

The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?

We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.

One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.

I had to find another way, fast.

Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start

Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration.
Wayne Dyer

Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.

In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.

A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.

For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.

I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.

We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.

I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.

I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.

There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.

A Different Playing Field

You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:

  1. You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
  2. Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.

1. Nice Try But No Cigar

You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.

Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.

Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.

Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
Newt Gingrich

Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.

2. The Lies You Tell

Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.

Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.

You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.

You can have excuses, or you can have results.

You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.

Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.

Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.

Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.

Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.

How Much Do You Want It?

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.
Sumner Redstone

Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?

Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.

The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.

And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.


Have a comment or question? Drop it in the form below and let’s talk.