blog, self improvement

How To Know What You Want From Life

Colourful fruit tarts
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Oscar Wilde

Do you know what you want?

Our desires vary from the mundane need to scratch an itchy back to the intangible urge for self-actualisation.

You’re looking for satisfaction but you aren’t very good at figuring out what satisfaction looks like.

You’re like that person who can’t decide what to order. They look at the menu, ask what’s in every dish, wonder if they’re not really hungry, and bounce from one item to another until you want to scream.

Here are three possible reasons why you “struggle to order.”

  1. Wrong place
  2. Wrong timing
  3. Not hungry

Each of these issues requires a different solution.

Can I Get Extra Cheese On That?

You could have everything right but be in the wrong place. You think your business is no good, but really, the problem is your place is no good.

Fred DeLuca

When you’re hungry for pizza and you stop in the first restaurant you find, there’s a high chance that the menu won’t suit you. The more specific your desires, the less likely that you’re in the right place.

You might want to create something. Trying to write a novel when you really want to build a scale model of the Eiffel Tower will only lead to frustration.

Identifying the details of your desire means asking more questions. The 5 Whys technique is useful for getting to the heart of a matter. If you want to do something, ask why. Repeat up to five times until you reach the kernel of truth. That often manifests as an “aha!” moment.

It seems obvious, but you’ll get the things you want more quickly if you’re looking in the right place.

No Stars in the Daytime

In fashion as in life, the right thing at the right time is the right thing. The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.
Tom Ford

Suppose you want steak and a glass of Chianti, but it’s nine in the morning and the restaurant is only serving breakfast. You’re in the right place at the wrong time. No amount of effort on your part can change day into evening.

Life tends to happen when you’re not looking. An unexpected pregnancy, change of job, or illness can derail your plans so that there’s no way to make them work at that time. The only way through is around. You’ll have to recalculate your route to the goal, taking time into account as a major variable.

Taking a longer view and reframing it as a definite goal helps to diffuse the frustration and disappointment of putting something off. Rather than vaguely saying you’ll do it later, take control and commit to specifics.

The statement “I will apply for X course in January 2021” feels very different to “This sucks – I’m missing school because of family issues and it’s not fair.” Sometimes it really isn’t your fault, but it’s still up to you to fix it.

Time is elastic. You have more than you think, especially when viewed from a lifetime perspective. There’s almost always another chance to do something, though you might have to approach it differently. As Oprah said, you can have it all – just not all at once.

You Can’t Get There From Here

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
Yogi Berra

Your meal is in front of you, but do you want what you ordered? Consider whether your hunger belongs to you.

If you’ve studied almost any subject at the college level, you know that some of the students don’t actually want to be there. They worked hard to be accepted because “everyone goes to college” or “you come from a long line of doctors/lawyers/engineers” or “it’s the best route to a good life.”

They may be feverish over-achievers or they may be failing, but they have one thing in common.

They are fulfilling someone else’s destiny at the cost of their own. The professions are full of unhappily successful practitioners. And it takes real guts first to admit you don’t want this prize that “everybody” says is so great, and second to walk away.

My undergraduate class in medical school harboured many who would rather be somewhere else. A girl consumed by anxiety and driven by expectations to become a third generation physician. A gentle boy who preferred music to science and drank every weekend until he passed out alone in a corner. A boy from a working-class family who was the first in his family to enter university.

Others hid it better. They all said and did the right things, and were praised. They all died a little every day to achieve something they didn’t believe in.

Only the working class boy got out. After the first year, he escaped life sciences for the greater rigour of maths and physics. His parents were distraught, but it saved his life. Others weren’t so lucky.

Be brutally honest with yourself about what you really want.

It’s very easy to fall in with other people’s plans if you have no internal compass or goal of your own. It’s very easy to delude yourself that the prize is something you value.

Sure, college, a life partner, children, a profession, a new car, and one holiday a year are right for some people, some of the time. Now you need to think; are you some people, or are you an individual, living in the world of now and the future rather than the rose-tinted past?

What worked twenty or even ten years ago won’t necessarily work today.  You’ll need a map of the current terrain, both interior and exterior. Here’s how to approach that.

Photo by Nicole Wilcox on Unsplash

A Big Adventure

Map out your future – but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.

Jon Bon Jovi

You think you want something important? It’s time to test that want to destruction.

Use the 5 Whys

If one of your reasons is “to make X happy or proud” be very careful. Making someone else proud is neither necessary nor sufficient for your happiness. Their pride should be that you are doing what makes you happy. Pause before you sacrifice your happiness. Then do what you must to prioritise it.

Write in your journal

The bigger a goal and the more effort it requires, the more you need to be as sure as you can that it’s right for you. Write about any and every aspect and don’t hold back. That thing you can’t say? Write it down, because the truth lies close to the thoughts you don’t express. It’s safe on a page and you can’t be judged if you keep it secret.

Step into the future

Use a future visualisation exercise to imagine yourself at the goal. How do you feel? If your feeling is immediate dread, a sinking feeling, anxiety, or tightness in your chest, don’t do it – yet. It’s called a gut feeling for a reason, and it’s often more truthful than the justifications we come up with.

Use your head to figure out solutions, or to conclude that you need to look elsewhere. Spend more time refining or changing the goal until it aligns more closely with your true desire.

Find a guide

Ask somebody who’s done what you hope to achieve. Ask them what they wish they’d known when they started and what they enjoy about their journey. Be polite and don’t expect them to solve all your problems. The path you choose is yours to walk. Others can walk beside you but they’re not there to carry you.

Use the negative reality check

Finally, flip the visualisation exercise on its head. Imagine you didn’t achieve your goal. Your life stayed on its current track. Now step into that life five, ten, twenty years from now. What’s your very first impression? That’s the true one. Do you feel disappointed, regretful, angry? Or do you feel relief?

All the rational reasons in the world are nothing compared to how you feel about your goal. Why else would fame, money, and adoration fail to satisfy so many outwardly successful people? They are feeding the wrong appetite, living someone else’s dream while starving themselves of what they deeply desire.

We all have desires. Being satisfied is a matter of making sure that your appetite aligns with the food you choose.

Sometimes you drink water; other times you are thirsty. To be thirsty and to drink water is the perfection of sensuality rarely achieved.

Jose Bergamin

(Originally published in Publishous on 29 March 2019)

blog, self improvement

How To Stay Positive In A Negative World

feel better without drugs or therapy

the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan
Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto Japan

We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.
Stephen Covey

When you look at the world around you, what do you see?

Do you see beauty, hope, and possibility? Or do you see destruction, despair and delusion? It all depends on your viewpoint.

As seen above, the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji has natural beauty, man-made elegance, the richness of gold, and the calmness of water reflecting serenity.

The reality was much less attractive. We visited at the weekend and the site was swarming with tourists from all over the world, their different languages clashing in a modern day Babel. Everyone wanted unobstructed photos of the pavilion, everyone was waving a selfie stick, and everyone crowded at the barrier.

We’d travelled a long way and we wanted our picture too. Frantic tourism and ancient tranquillity fought for the same space, and I knew which I wanted to remember. By stepping back from the crowd and being patient, I was able to spot the opportunity to capture a moment.

Was that choice reasonable, or was I refusing to see the truth in order to present a lie?

Open Your Eyes

You see what you expect to see, Severus.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Just open your eyes and look — but it isn’t as simple as that. You filter and disregard far more information than you retain. It’s essential, because you could not hope to pay attention to all the inputs.

Studies estimate that the brain receives 400 billion bits of data per second, of which the eyes receive 10 million bits per second. You’re only aware of perhaps 2,000 bits per second.   

Thinking about buying a new car, maybe a blue VW? Suddenly you see VW cars everywhere, and especially blue ones, where you didn’t notice them before. That doesn’t negate the existence of all the other cars on the road, but they’re temporarily less important than the ones you’re paying attention to.

Your brain is wired to take shortcuts and build theories to deal with all this data quickly. This can be helpful, but it also leads to confirmation bias, causing you to ignore evidence that disagrees with your first impression. That bias is a bad thing if you’re investigating a crime or making a diagnosis.

But if you’re trying to stay positive in a negative world, confirmation bias can be your friend.

Mind The Gap

Stress is the gap between our expectation and reality.
Buddha

The lifetime prevalence of major depression in high-income countries is 14.6%. Less severe mood disorders affect a further 12% of patients in family practice. How can this be, in this era of technological advance and generally high levels of personal safety and freedom?

As high as living standards may be, our expectations at every level of society are still higher. Driven by comparison on social media and seductive advertising, our desire for more is constantly fed and never fully satisfied. We rapidly adjust to each step up – and there’s always something new to aspire towards.

Unmet expectations induce emotions such as anger and resentment, and feeling unable to reach them leads to helplessness and despair. While you absolutely can use envy to fuel your progress, there are times when that’s not appropriate. Expectations must be managed.

Taking a vacation is an example. Before booking a hotel, you probably look at reviews. Surprisingly, guests staying at the same time often give wildly varying accounts of their stays.  One guest was disappointed not to be given the best room in the property, treated the staff like servants and saw reasons to complain about everything from the weather to the amount of ice in their drink. Another was happy to be on holiday, treated others with respect, and saw reasons for praise.

You will be happier when you match your expectations to the limits of your personal influence. Where you have no or limited influence, try to manage your expectations as low as you can tolerate.

If you are content with less, then everything else is a bonus. If only perfection will do, even a small deviation will disappoint you. You can see this play out at the Olympics, where a study of medal winners’ expressions showed bronze medal winners are generally much happier than silver medallists.

Bronze medallists are happy to get a medal they didn’t have before, like Tom Daley in 2012. Silver medallists are unhappy not to get a gold medal, like McKayla Maroney in 2012.

It’s tough to work hard for something and then try to let go of your attachment to the outcome. It’s galling to hear people who have already achieved your goal say it doesn’t matter because process is the real prize. But that doesn’t make it less true.

Make your product or your advice great, send it into the world, and get on with the next one without obsessing over the reception you think it deserves. As soon as you talk about what you should have, your expectations are showing.

There is only one person you can expect more of, and that’s you. If you have given your all in the pursuit of a goal, that is a form of success. You can’t force any result to go in your favour and the world does not owe you.

The simpler your needs, the more likely they will be met or even exceeded. When needs are met you can be content; when needs are exceeded you can be happy. How can you make this shift in mindset?

How Much Is Enough?

My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.
Stephen Hawking

Sometimes we’re told to live each day as if it were our last. How would you spend your final, precious twenty-four hours?

You could either focus on all the time you would miss, or you could focus on what you still had. The taste of your favourite coffee, the smile of your favourite person, birdsong, or the scent of a rose would take on a new significance.

The good news is, those things are available to you right now. Happy feelings can be yours, if you look for them. Rather than discount all the real things you have compared to the imaginary stuff you don’t, appreciate and enjoy them. Compare your current experience not with some fictional worse-off person, but with not having them yourself.

Reacquaint yourself with gratitude.

Gratitude journals have been shown to increase happiness. However, I’ve found that people react to the idea with disbelief or cynicism, particularly when depressed. Those with low mood have the most to gain, but their focus is unfailingly negative. There’s a way around this.

First acknowledge the suck. The suck is real so feel free to pour your heart out on the pages of your journal. Then once you’ve run out of suck, you find three things to be grateful for that day and write them down.

I’ve done this exercise and the truth is, some days it’s a struggle to find positive things. It’s tough. That’s when it’s most needed. You might have to dig deep but even little tiny things count. A cup of tea given without asking, a puppy running in the park, flowers, a pretty sunset, hot water and indoor plumbing, or no queue at the checkout are all reasons to smile.

For anyone preoccupied with everything that’s wrong, focusing on the tiny spots of light in the darkness can produce a real shift in attitude – without therapy or drugs. And since what you focus on grows, the more you seek out positive things the more you’ll see.

Of course it’s not the whole picture. You are applying a filter to the world, not changing it, so does any of this matter?

Your viewpoint matters because you can’t hope to feel content when everything looks negative. You can’t change your world from a position of despair. You need to feel better first.

Turn To The Light

As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?
Anne Frank

With practice, you can be happier without therapy or drugs. The keys are managed expectations and regular deliberate focus on positive moments in your current life.

  • Work within your circle of influence, which is your thoughts and actions.
  • Expect the most from yourself and less from others.
  • No matter how bleak things look, make the effort to look for the small positives in everyday life.  

The little pleasures you notice along the road to your future will build your positivity so you can take on the world.

blog, productivity, self improvement

How To Survive and Thrive In The Modern World By Using 4 Key Skills

person jumping photo
Photo by Fru00f6ken Fokus on Pexels.com

What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.
Bob Dylan

What does it take to succeed in life?

How high is the skills stack you need to make it big?

Some say ten skills are enough. Others say twenty, or fifty-two. Maybe it’s a hundred or a thousand, who knows? These are arbitrary numbers.

One thing is for sure. Success is not found by wearing the same outfit, taking cold showers, or reading five hundred pages every day. These habits are correlated with some measures of success, but they don’t cause it.

Your definition of success is bound to vary from mine in the details, but deep down we hold the same desires. Once we satisfy the basic human needs for safety, shelter, and food, as described by Maslow, we look for higher level satisfactions.

The search for companionship in its widest sense, a sense of purpose, and above all autonomy, hide beneath many of our rational and less rational activities. We can dress up our motivations in fancy language if we want to, but it comes down to this.

We want to be safe. We want to belong. We want to matter.

Everything else is froth on the top.

So if everything we do can be stripped down to very simple drivers, what do successful people do that allows them to survive and then thrive in the modern world? I don’t know for sure. But developing as a whole human being, not a lopsided one with all the success in one corner, requires four keystone skills. Work on these, and see how far you grow.

Curiosity Won’t Kill The Cat

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.  
Eleanor Roosevelt

If you’ve ever shared living space with a kitten or a toddler, you know their principal quality is endless curiosity. They explore, get into tight spaces and sometimes even escape without help, over and over. They’re not very much afraid, until they learn to be.

Adulthood squashes your curiosity. If as a child you enjoy nature, books, or music, adults kill your enthusiasm with boring study and assessment. Forced to dissect books and poetry, learn the Linnaeus binomial classification, or study the life of Mozart, younger you learns a hard lesson.

You learn that study is pain, teachers are the judges, and parents aren’t interested in your interests unless they bring in top grades. Then interests become work.

You learn to mind your business and show no joy in anything, lest it be sucked from you as you’re forced to do anything but enjoy yourself. Play isn’t serious and it certainly isn’t preparing you for adult life.

Look again at the quote above. Every one of us comes into the world with that gift of curiosity. We ask questions that have no answers and some that do. But somewhere along the road to adulthood we lose our most precious gift.

Curiosity is an open mind and a sincere smile. The world is as amazing as ever, but you need to open your eyes to see it. Be amazed. Look up at the stars in wonderment, and down at a flower in awe.

People share incredible stories if you ask questions and wait to hear the answer. If you can be open enough to reveal a little of yourself, others are empowered to do the same.

Once, I made a flippant remark about how I’d rather be gardening to the woman sitting next to me in a boring meeting. We got talking and I discovered she was also a passionate gardener. Finally I had someone who understood my struggle, was sympathetic when my Meconopsis died before flowering, and was delighted to visit the Chelsea Flower Show with me.

Curiosity will also help you adapt to changes. Technology has disrupted industries and lives, often for the better. Sometimes it’s difficult to sift out the things that will help you from the mass of options.

Ask yourself simple, child-like questions about new things. What does this do? How do I do X with Y? What if I wanted to do something new, who could show me how?

Whether it’s a new food or a new country, if you attend to the basic need for security, try something different regularly. If you don’t like it, no worries. You have an opinion based on experience and since you’re an adult, you don’t have to do it again.

Curiosity and open-mindedness leads to the next keystone skill.

Feel My Pain, Feel My Joy

Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.
H Jackson Browne

We’re faced daily with the evidence of inhumanity both large and small. Opinions and positions are increasingly polarised, fed by echo chambers that spring up around algorithms showing us more of the same views we already hold. We are more connected but more divided than ever.

Cynicism and numbing of emotions are inevitable when we’re fed a daily diet of sensational news stories and disasters far from home that we have no influence over. Some even advocate a news diet to avoid the distress it causes.

And yet it remains true that humans want the same things. We may name our needs differently, we may take different routes to satisfy them. But mothers want happy secure children, adults want meaning in their lives, and no matter how twisted the expression of these desires they are at heart the same.

Most of us will never hold public office. But in the equally messy politics of our own lives, within our own circle of influence, we can choose to see the other side through a more empathetic lens. We can negotiate for win-win outcomes rather than seek destruction of the opposing side just because it’s the opposing side. After all, the last time someone wronged you the pain didn’t go away, did it? It went underground, festered and grew, until it found another way out.

An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
attrib. Gandhi

Instead of raging, take a breath. Consider the possible reasons behind people’s behaviour that may have little to do with you as a person. None of this excuses or forgives wrongdoing, but it gives you the chance not to add to it.

You don’t have to practise random acts of generosity. Being kinder to the people in your life already is a big enough task for most of us, but one which is worthwhile.  Hold the door, let someone into traffic, make a drink without being asked. If you’d love it, chances are someone else will.

On the flip side, empathy allows us to share in the joy of others too. There’s no truer friend than the one who can be honestly happy for and with you. Why not be that person for somebody else?

Empathy lets us feel the ties that bind us. We have more in common than we think. We must not give up on ourselves, which leads to the next keystone skill.

Until The End Of The Line

The difference between winning and losing is, most often, not quitting.
Walt Disney

There’s a saying that A students end up working for C students. Consider person A, one of the hardest workers in her class. She was never in the top ten percent, and that kept her hungry. She learned at an early age that hard grind would be the key to success.  

Compare with person B. Gifted with intelligence, athleticism and charm, he excelled in sports and school almost without trying. But in those last three words were the seeds of his downfall. He struggled in higher education because for the first time it required effort. He never learned how to study and college seemed too much like hard work.

You can guess which person became director at a major brand, successful by their own and society’s standards, and which one has a great future behind them. They are separated not so much by IQ as by perseverance.

Call it grit, perseverance, persistence, bloody mindedness, or whatever you like. Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win. If you give up before the tipping point, you soon find yourself back at the starting line, while others plod on with their eyes fixed on the finish.

If you have grit, the means to keep going, to stick it out, to tolerate not winning until you do, the road to success is open to you. It isn’t easy though it sounds simple; turn up, day after day. Write, train, sell, paint. Put it out there and go again.

Find your own ways to keep going even when you think you’re failing. Try a different approach if your current one isn’t working. If you have a habit of bolting when things get tough, try sitting with the discomfort. Journal it, dissect it, find the fear that sits under the surface.

If you think you’re not good enough, you’re afraid to fail, scared of success, worried about the future, panicking that you can’t do this – then welcome. Everyone feels the same and success doesn’t make that go away. Digest this fact, and get back to work. There are no medals for sitting on the sidelines.

Perseverance is a vital component for the last keystone skill.

pillow fight_allen-taylor

The More You Know

Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton

You’re curious, open-minded, able to empathise and relate to others, and have sticking power. That’s great, because you’ll need all these to supercharge the final key skill for survival in the modern world.

Ageing is inevitable, but have you noticed how some people get old really quickly? Their world shrinks, they stop asking questions, and they’re not interested in anything except the pain in their hip and how terrible the kids are these days.

I met many people like this in family practice. Often they were men who had retired without planning their next life stage. Without the structure of work they drifted, annoying their wives and suffering low mood.

When I asked what their hobbies were, or what they did with their days, they were blank. They shook their heads. “Nothing.”

Or they were older women without family ties for various reasons. They had a hundred reasons why they couldn’t join local groups, go to tea dances, try pottery, attend church lunches or knit blankets for charity.

These were people without curiosity and who refused to learn. They had time, but their mindset was fixed. They believed those activities were not for people like them. And so they remained stuck and unhappy, unwilling to leave their very small comfort zones.

To survive and thrive you need teachability – the ability and willingness to learn.

Embrace a growth mindset that welcomes the chance to develop. You’ll need curiosity to find out what might suit you and try it. You’ll need empathy to understand that teaching isn’t easy, and other people are just as worried as you are under their social smile.

You’ll definitely need grit, because everyone sucks in the beginning. And we hate to suck, but it’s unavoidable until we get better. We only get better with practice.

Leaving your comfort zone can feel like being dropped in a distant forest with no map or compass. Think of learning as going to the edge of your map and looking out at unknown but interesting forest nearby.

You still have your home base, which holds all the skills you have already. Now you’re ready to explore, bit by bit, with your teacher or mentor or YouTube video showing the way. Still a bit scary, but not so bad, right?

Learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone.

Don’t overload your brain by going too fast, too soon. Go at your own pace, but keep going. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. That’s humbling, but also inspiring because there’s always more to learn, whether in your own patch or somewhere else.

Rule of Four

Now it’s time for you to apply these rules in your own life.

    • Ask more questions and listen to the answer.
    • Be kinder and cut people some slack occasionally.
    • Stick with things until they bear fruit and don’t give up too easily.
    • Learn something new and enlarge your world.

It’s a crazy world but also full of good things, should you choose to notice them. Sometimes, like jewels, magic lies under the surface waiting for someone to dig it out, hold it to the light and make our lives a bit brighter.


(originally published in Publishous on 20 March 2019)

blog, productivity, self improvement

How To Use Envy To Fuel Your Journey

comparison shows you the way

balanced tower of rocks with hands making another tower
image by Samuel Francis Johnson via pixabay.com

We’re only envious of those already doing what we were made to do. Envy is a giant, flashing arrow pointing us toward our destiny.
Glennon Doyle

How are you doing with your writing?

Are you earning four figures every month and counting thousands of followers? Or are you only reading about those who are?

You know you shouldn’t compare your behind-the-scenes footage with someone else’s highlight reel, but it’s just so easy. Social media sites thrive on peacocks preening under envious glances from the rest of us, selling us their secret sauce along the way. Everyone wants to be a beautiful unicorn, not a plain carthorse plodding through a humdrum life.

Comparison leaves you dissatisfied and unsettled. Far from being a motivating force, it saps the very energy you need to move forward – because you’re number one or you’re nowhere. As Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Me Me Me

You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

You’ve probably done this. You look at X who has something you don’t. You feel envious because you deserve that thing, angry because they don’t deserve it, or ashamed of your lack.

Notice that all these emotions point back at you. X is out there doing what they do, and you’re beating yourself up over it. Comparison is a thief. It steals your peace of mind and uses your own energy to do it.

None of this helps you to feel better, or achieve more in your own life. Worse still, when you think about it you’ll see that X is unaffected by all your angst. You are both the author and the sole beneficiary of this bad blood.

You can redirect that energy for your own good.

Envy is a magic mirror that shows your true desires. If you think you don’t know what you want, use envy. What makes you angry when other people have it? What object or activity cuts so deep that you have to cover up the pain with sarcasm or sweetness, otherwise you’d scream?

That. That’s what you want.

And you can go for it, because other people are paying very little attention to you. The spotlight effect makes you feel as if you’re the centre of attention, but others are as consumed by their inner dialogue as you are by yours. Even when they scrutinise you, that critical gaze is really a projection of their own self-talk. Just like when you watch unicorns and covet their rainbow manes.

But consider this – what if you could be a unicorn?

unicorn-transparent_SabrinaSchleifer
 image by Sabrina Schleifer on pixabay

Fuelled By Envy

Find out who you are and do it on purpose.
Dolly Parton

I’m no writing superstar. I write and publish, and sometimes get discouraged. I have to remind myself to keep going even if there’s no immediate payoff, and to take pride in my achievements even when it feels like I’m failing.

Because one truth lies at the heart of my work – I’m a writer and that’s what I do, good days and bad, fair weather or foul. Still… good days are more than welcome. It’s been a grind recently, for numerous reasons.

A writing group friend came up to me last week and said, “I read your articles and I’m amazed you’re able to write so much.”

He went on to say that he’d been sitting on a story for a long time. Inspired by Medium, he committed to writing one hundred words a day, and he was delighted to have a forty-five day streak under his belt.

This struck me for two reasons. First, I’d been beating myself up for not writing enough; and second because that’s how I started my serious writing journey. I read Shaunta Grimes and took on board her teeny tiny goals. I kept going, and now I’m here.

Maybe you’re not at the goal yet. But perception is relative. The top of the mountain is shrouded in cloud, but you are a speck in the distance to somebody who’s just left the starting blocks. Maybe you’re even an inspiration to them. Rather than envy, they recognise a kinship which motivates them to go on. If you did it, so can they.

Wherever you are, you’re further on than the person who didn’t start yet, further on than you were. The only useful comparison is with your past self. Make sure you’re pulling away from your previous position.

Then you’ll find the unicorns are people like you. Yes, they ran faster and/or started before you, but they all began where you did – at the starting post. They’re on their path, and you are on yours, but remember that there’s room at the top for everyone who works for it.

So keep going. Be inspired by those ahead of you, and an inspiration for those behind.

 

blog, creativity, self improvement

Reboot Your Dreams To Get More Out Of Life

Photo by Paulin on Unsplash

Kids these days, huh?

They have it so much easier than you and I do, caught up in the humdrum world of adulthood. It makes you angry, how carefree and downright dreamy they are.

Under the anger lies envy. You long for something you lost long before you could even really appreciate it, and now you can’t see how to get it back.

Parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They told you success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.

You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be.

But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts in a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.

You know, deep down, something’s missing from your life.

An Imaginary World

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
George Bernard Shaw

None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created purely by realists.

Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.

Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea can be as expansive as your imagination. In other words, ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.

Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement. To make something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, computers, and video games.

That’s how you’ll get where you want to be.

Put Away Childish Things

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Berkeley Breathed

When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.

Your father no longer scares you so badly you can’t look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do — without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.

School days are far behind you, but when you browse painting sets online your old art teacher whispers that you have no talent. And instead of wondering why you’re looking at paints, you click away. That’s not for me, you say.

Here’s the thing. You’re an adult now. No-one is the boss of you.

You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions. At some point, you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.

The past experiences and attached emotions that make up so much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. When you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you can escape your past.

That was then and this is now. You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.

That’s when you grow up.

Start Your Second Childhood

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Julian Fleron

You’ve had your share of bad experiences that have shaped your life. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to seek something better.

This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books from this list to guide your journey. Or let go of your old programming and try something new, like the artist dates described in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

We are all innately creative. You can be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

From Reality To Fantasy

Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.
Ken Robinson

Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.

Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.

  • Security: safety, stability
  • Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
  • Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
  • Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning

Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.

One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’

Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean putting your dream on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

This simple visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it as fuel in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.

Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. Future you has achieved your wildest dream. What do you see?

You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book.

Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.

In dreams there are no limits to what you can do.

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. If you want to build a million dollar business, see your signature on the annual accounts below a seven-figure number.

In this place there are no limits to what you can do. And it can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, associate it with a physical sensation. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.

Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.

Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They work towards a clearly defined image of success. They’ve lived it so many times in their minds that it already feels real.

Where Are You Going?

It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.

Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, check whether your actions move you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up socialising because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside for six months while you concentrate on financial stability.

Sometimes the way forwards is sideways or even backwards. As long as you stay pointed at that wonderful dream destination, you can still make it.

Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.

Go get it.

blog, self improvement

Sitting on the Sidelines: How to Defeat The Insidious Rise of Do Nothing Culture

woman eating popcorn holding remote control
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

I think the love-hate is fundamental. Everyone hates reality television, and everyone’s watching it.
Bo Burnham

Did you watch any reality TV this week? Whether drag queens on a catwalk, crab fishermen in a storm or brides choosing a wedding dress, these programmes are everywhere. They feature “real” people and film their reactions in varying situations.

In the UK there’s even a reality programme showing people at home reacting to TV shows, which is either very, very meta or imaginatively bankrupt. Not only is it popular, but more than one of the featured participants has gone on to (short-lived) solo TV careers.

Harmless fun and entertainment, right? But these programmes can be anything but. Reality TV can harm your health whether you’re on screen or in front of it.

In pursuit of viewers, participants are manipulated and stressed to exaggerate their responses.

Further manipulation takes place in editing so that the finished product bears little relation to the events as they happened.

My friend was featured on a house renovation show. She and her family were split up, kept waiting in different rooms, and denied opportunities for rest. There was no escaping the cameras.

Her partner was encouraged to have a beer in the garden at the end of a very long day, and the programme presented him as a disinterested drinker. Neither found the experience a positive one overall.

But you’ve had a hard day and you deserve some downtime. Why overthink things?

Watching The Box

I’m capable of living in the moment. And I’m especially capable of living in the moment of sitting on my sofa and watching other people’s moments.
Samantha Bee

We’re watching a lot of TV. The 2017 US average TV viewing time figures show Americans watch 7 hours 50 minutes per day, while the 2018 UK average was 22 hours per week. These figures don’t include streaming and social media use.

Watching TV is a passive activity that gives the illusion of participation.

Programmes showing rugged men diving for gold or surviving inhospitable terrain cater to particular views of masculinity. Programmes showing sexy twenty-somethings in skimpy clothing cater to particular views of femininity and relationships.

When the camera zeroes in on faces to show every micro-expression, you’re invited to feel the same emotions. When the tough guy swims across an icy lake and builds a shelter out of pine branches, you’re invited to feel that you too are braving the elements in a primal struggle for survival. Mirror neurons fire in your brain to make you feel as if you were there.

But you’re sitting on your couch, warm and safe, with snacks to hand. You’re not there and the supposed experience is an illusion.

The show-runners respond to our inevitable habituation by turning up the pressure; less time, bigger challenges, more remote islands, surprise evictions.

It’s the modern version of bread and circuses, in which the audience is promised ever more dangerous animals for the gladiators to face. The blood on the floor is all part of the show.

What happens to those reality gladiators and us, their audience, afterwards?

Fifteen Minutes and After

You will soon break the bow if you keep it always stretched.
Norman Vincent Peale

Contestants can struggle after the camera moves on. The unrelenting pressure to perform and keep strong emotions near the surface can amount to abuse, hazardous to even the strongest personality.

We don’t often hear about the dark side of reality TVSuicide of a cast member becomes fodder for the mill because “any publicity is good publicity.” Some argue that abusive relationships are being normalised by shows that present a human being as a prize to be contested and claimed, leaving the others as failures.

For you as a viewer, artificially evoked empathy for the unsuccessful contestant is fleeting and dulls your true responses. When we dismiss on-screen emotion as fake, our cynicism can spill over into real life.

At its worst, observation culture hurts all of us. We watch, we are numbed by over-exposure, and we are caught in the illusion of participation.

At its best, observation culture can enrich your life. You just need to approach it differently.

Watch and Learn

Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.
Jackie Robinson

There’s nothing wrong with watching reality TV or any other shows. As in so much of life, moderation is key. Sometimes you really need to relax and let your mind drift.

The less challenge and hazard we face in modern life, the more we’re spoon-fed distant dangers to compensate. But watching someone else climb a mountain can’t build your muscles, and you can’t eat that delicious meal on the screen.

Don’t fall for the magic trick which confuses observing with doing. Use your favourite show as inspiration for actual activity in the real world. Get off the couch and try it.

If you like cookery shows, try new recipes. Maybe you can’t cook a gourmet meal yet, but you could enjoy a new recipe or make your own bread.

If you watch survival, go hiking. You don’t have to fight off a bear or eat bugs to enjoy the fresh air and stretch your legs.

If you watch shows that hook you with strongly expressed emotion, remember those emotions are often the result of being stressed and cornered and filmed in HD for hours on end. People are more than characters in a soap opera; and actual soaps, movies and books exist to fill your need for empathywithout pushing real people to their limits and beyond.

Plan a trip somewhere you’ve never been. My trips to Lapland and Iceland were inspired by snowy Swedish landscapes in a programme featuring Ray Mears, a noted British survival expert. It sparked something in my heart I couldn’t forget. Because of that show, I drove a snowmobile, visited the original Ice Hotel, and experienced a blizzard on a glacier. And my children have never forgotten the thrill of husky sledding.

Now when I see these countries on TV, I recall wonderful memories. I was there; I know what the cold is like, and that makes me appreciate my central heating and plush sofa all the more.

Part of the reason watching TV is ultimately hollow is because you don’t participate. Your body knows the difference between muscle relaxation after actual activity and slumped tension after hours on the sofa.

Your favourite reality show can be more than entertainment; it can signpost a way out of boredom and disengagement. The things you yearn to do and the places you want to see are often right in front of you, disguised as passive entertainment choices.

As Halliday said in Ready Player One, people need to spend time in the real world because reality is the only thing that’s real.

By all means, rest in front of the box. Learn something new. But after that, go find a way to experience life.

To learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know.
Stephen Covey


 

blog, productivity, self improvement

How to Turn Surprisingly Small Actions Into Dramatically Better Results

clouds dawn lake landscape
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
Warren Buffett

We all want to succeed. We want our hard work to pay off, and we dream of the benefits yet to come. But in the present, we’re consumed by the immediate and the urgent.

Putting out fires takes up time and energy we could otherwise devote to fireproofing the walls or fixing the faulty stove. We prioritise the urgent over the important.

You know this logically, but what do you do about it?

You don’t have time for the strategic thinking in sector 2 because you’re overwhelmed by stuff that has to be done right now. You spend your time in sector 1 firefighting, at the mercy of whatever comes up in the moment. You’re on a hamster wheel of busy work and you’re exhausted.

You think the future stuff can wait. That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.

Here’s how to shift your focus.

The Seed Is Not The Tree — Yet

Every tree begins as a single seed. The seed needs the right conditions to develop. But properly managed, it will grow into a plant many times larger than the seed it sprouted from.

The biggest input into growth is time. Given enough time, growth can be amazing.

We underestimate the power of compounding.

The chart shows the difference in return from investing the same amount of money at different times, with the same growth rates. The earlier you start, the bigger your return when interest is allowed to compound over time.

In the same way, repeated daily actions add up over time. Whether you invest in yourself or in something external, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing your novel or building up a pension plan.

How can you get compounding to work for you?

You Have One Job

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.
Robert Louis Stevenson

There’s something small you can do which will more than repay the effort now. Its effects will build over time to get you much further along your path, whether your horizon is measured in days or decades.

You might think big gestures get the winner to the podium. But more often, building one small deed on another over time brings the biggest rewards. No deed is too small, provided we keep doing it.

If you draw an apple every day, you’ll improve. If you write a story every week, you’ll improve. If you walk ten minutes daily, you’ll improve. With these baby steps you can go further each time, and eventually, things will take off.

Of course, you’ll feel like there’s no progress to start. You might get discouraged. Remember you will never reach the tipping point if you don’t keep moving.

Do one thing your future self will thank you for. Repeat regularly.

  • Write 250 words on your current project
  • Exercise for ten minutes
  • Read a chapter of that book you meant to finish
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Plant something — a tree or a window box
  • Save whatever you can afford each month — if only spare change
  • Paint or draw a small picture

Any gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter wind to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate, unlike my frozen fingers. But now, with little to no extra effort, the flowers cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.

So what will you do today, and tomorrow, and onwards to secure a better future?

Whether it’s saving £5 a week, or kissing your SO every day, you’ll be delighted with the return on your investment. Start now.

The law of harvest is to reap more than you sow. Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.

James Allen

blog, creativity, self improvement, writing

How to Turn Negative Feedback Into a Positive Experience

men s black and white long sleeve shirt
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.
Kenneth Tynan

When was the last time you got negative feedback?
You’ve probably had comments on your writing, cooking, driving, or that shirt only you like. It doesn’t feel good.

Feedback is crucial to improvement. You only know what needs to change by assessing what does or doesn’t work.

Creative work of any kind exposes you to one-star reviews, lack of engagement, negative or offensive comments. You hoped for praise but got something unpleasant instead.

Alternatively, you might be working with a mentor or in a group of your peers, and actively seeking constructive comments.

You know feedback is a good thing. But do you always want it?

Candy or Broccoli?

Writers crave good feedback. You want to hear how much readers loved your characters, plot, and description. Positive feedback (I loved this!) feels good, but like eating candy, it isn’t nourishing on its own.

But despite the supposed benefits, we’re less keen on hearing negatives. Like broccoli or high fibre cereal, we know it’s good for us but it doesn’t taste good.

Negative feedback cuts to the heart of your self-esteem. If you’re too closely identified with your work (writing is my life rather than writing is something I do) criticism of your work feels like criticism of your core self. Then you attack in self-defence — either the critic or yourself. Both options are painful.

Reviews and comments are an accepted part of life. The only way to avoid them is never showing your work.

Fighters work with a sparring partner to build their strength and skills. Ask for help from a trusted source. Each time someone points out a defect is an opportunity to learn and do better next time. Take feedback on the chin and emerge with your self-esteem intact.

There are ways to make feedback both palatable and useful, whether it was invited or not.

Here To Help

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
Norman Vincent Peale

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
It is factual. It focuses on objective measures using rational language.

Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
It is opinion given in emotive language. It may not be relevant to the work at hand. It is personal.

What does constructive critique look like?

  • Timely — ideally given soon after the event
  • Focused — limited to one or two points
  • Objective — factual, uses respectful language
  • Specific — gives examples
  • Actionable — suggests targeted remedies

 

Poor critique:
What complete rubbish. You’re useless, my ten year old could do better than this.

Good critique:
I enjoyed the story but found this hard to read. The sentences and paragraphs were very long and it looked like a solid wall of text.

Consider having one idea per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. That gives more white space on the screen, which is easier to read.

 

The first example is pure negative opinion and offers no useful insight.
The second example avoids insults and emotive language and suggests remedies.

Whether you choose to take the advice depends on the source and the quality of the suggestion. But it gives you something to work with. The new version might work better or not suit your style. Either way, you know more than before, and can make more informed choices in your next piece.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Take It On The Chin

  • Allow time for strong emotions to settle
  • Look for a kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept
  • Consider the alternatives presented
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end
  • If you decide to maintain your current position, know why
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention

Not every comment deserves a response. Sometimes you just note it and move on. Remember you are in charge of your words. You don’t have to accept all of the critiques or make all suggested changes. However, review from another source can be invaluable in showing a reader’s view, which you as the author cannot experience.

Put Up Your Guard

Endless negativity, especially if mixed with personal attack and vitriol, says more about the commenter than the work.

The internet is full of people whose comments consist only of slurs and insults. Sometimes they start by being pleasant and complementary; when you take the bait they switch to attack. Being targeted by an online and probably anonymous bully is a painful and upsetting experience. The answer is simple; don’t feed the trolls.

Don’t respond or engage in a flame war. Don’t stoop to their level.

You risk hurting your brand among observers, as a reputation is hard to build but easy to destroy. And you open yourself to a stream of negative feelings that persist long after the encounter.

You can close comments, mute, block or unfollow, depending on the platform. Often silence is the best response.

Open Your Mind

A common response to critique is to become defensive or aggressive.

I worked all night on that and you didn’t even give me any credit so what’s the point?

Well, what do you know anyway? I’ve got a postgraduate degree in X so I think I know what I’m talking about.

A good sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them outright. You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight.

It might take some time to process the emotional hit, so take a breath. Remember that you’re here to learn. Nobody is perfect. Everyone can improve.

Learn to Love The Pain

The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment.
Justin Langer

Exposing yourself to feedback more often is the best way to increase your tolerance of it.

No creative is immune to the sinking feeling when they see just how many changes they need to make to a piece. You’re allowed to feel bad about it as long as you keep the end goal in mind. Constructive critique builds the strength to do better work.

You Are Not Your Work

You put something of yourself into your creation, but please separate your sense of self from the thing you made. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. When you truly accept this, feedback is much easier to handle. Make another, a better piece using what you’ve learned.

You are not your work.

Everyone’s a Critic

Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game

Dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving useful critique isn’t easy. Like all good teaching, producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions is harder than it looks.

So try writing a good critique by swapping with someone else. There are websites where you can submit your work for review, and earn credits by doing the same for others. It’s the tough love version of karma.

Follow the golden rule; be respectful.
Sharpen your critical skills, but not at someone else’s expense. Read other reviews to learn how to phrase your suggestions if you’re unsure. Even when you have points to make, imagine how your words would feel if you were receiving them. Empathy does not prevent you from being honest.

Whether you’re dishing it out or taking it, constructive feedback is central to your improvement and eventual success. You can learn to like broccoli. And dessert always tastes better after you’ve eaten your greens.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

How To Achieve Personal Growth (Without Giving Up Everything In The Process)

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
Rumi

Raise your hand if you’ve tried self-improvement and failed at it? I have, more times than I can count.

I recall trying self-improvement but instead of gaining anything, I lost my way.

I started working with Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. My life was super stressful with work and family challenges, and I felt defeated. The idea of resetting my internal compass was very appealing.

The book asked probing questions designed to reveal my true needs and aspirations. When I reached the chapter called Getting to Yes which asked me to create a best-case scenario for my life, I choked. Literally and metaphorically. I couldn’t go on, even though Beck had written about this exact reaction. Why?

Every positive scenario I thought of completely excluded the major elements of my life.

Whether it was work, family, or friends, I simply could not imagine how to improve my life without cancelling everything and starting with a clean slate. And I couldn’t cancel my life. So I was paralysed; unable to stay or go. I put the book away and tried to forget it.

Why couldn’t I change?

What Everybody Wants

I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.
Anaïs Nin

I was bound by ties of duty to be a good doctor, wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, boss, colleague, and more. But I didn’t want to sacrifice everything I valued for personal growth.

My only solution to this tangled Gordian knot of expectation seemed to be cut and run.

Expectation reduces the amount of thought we have to put into interactions. For example, you buy a sandwich every day from the same store. Both you and the cashier know roughly what to expect from each other, especially if you’ve met a few times.

Now imagine that the next time you hand over your money, the cashier asks you how you’re sleeping and what medication you take.

Or imagine that you visit your accountant’s office and find her painting in oils. She says, “Sorry, I didn’t finish your accounts because this is who I am now.”

Both these scenarios lead to puzzlement and/or anger on your part. Why is this person acting in a different role to what’s agreed, and who’s going to do your accounts now?

Everyone has a role they expect you to play, and it messes up their plans if you don’t go along with it.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you?
Not much.

Jim Rohn

If you try to change yourself, you’ll find no shortage of people nudging you back into a place that feels comfortable for them. If you dare to step outside your box, society will discourage or even punish you.

Society runs on external validation and social proof, and it takes courage to chart your own path. When you do, you’ll find the people closest to you are confused. You act differently and they don’t know how to respond, so they try to bring you back in line with veiled or overt threats.

At some point on your journey, you’ll have to choose between what everybody else wants, and what you need. Are you ready to choose yourself?

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash
 

Never Alone

Even if you cannot change all the people around you, you can change the people you choose to be around. Life is too short to waste your time on people who don’t respect, appreciate, and value you. Spend your life with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel loved.”
Roy T. Bennett

You’ve probably read that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, or you might lean towards the idea that it’s more dispersed than that. There’s definitely some influence, whether larger or smaller.

Imagine you’ve moved on. You don’t want to gossip over lunch or complain about your boss or otherwise play small anymore. But your colleagues are the same. You can’t change them. Habits are triggered by cues, so you decide to work out at lunchtime instead of going to the break room to whine. Which is great for your abs, but you just lost your social group at work.

Some self-improvement writers present this social drift as a virtuous circle. The more they improve themselves, the less they have in common with previous friends. So they find new, better ones more suited to their higher vibration. Which makes them even better, and so on.

That can come across as rather shallow and self-serving. Some relationships are temporary, but if you treat everyone as disposable you’ll never make lasting connections. Plus you risk finding yourself out of the circle once they move on, again. If you find it difficult to make new friends, discarding those you have has little appeal.

So can you change without giving up all your relationships and risking society’s scorn?

The Same But Different

People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.
Stephen R. Covey

Most people don’t want to sell all their possessions and go meditate in a cave in search of personal growth. Maybe you don’t have to reconnect with your first love on Facebook and leave your husband and children behind to find happiness in life.

You want to live a truer version of yourself, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Self-improvement is Michelangelo carefully cutting away all that’s inessential to reveal the glory of his David. It’s about finding the core of your self by discarding what no longer works and then living in accordance with your truth.

Change is evolution, not revolution.

Taking tiny steps and testing the waters is less daunting and likely to be more successful than a wholesale revision.

  1. Get clear about what you want to achieve. Finding the right guru is important, but you have to do the exercises in the books to refine your vision rather than just read without reflection.
  2. You will have to give something up to move forward. There’s no lesson in life that doesn’t cost something. Outdated ways of thinking and childhood programming are burdens you don’t need, but they can be comforting because they’re familiar and the unknown is scary.
  3. Reach out to your new tribe. Hang out where your people hang out. The internet makes this simple, no matter your location or interests. If you want to be a writer or a potter or a vintage car restorer, go find them. Lurk in online groups before introducing yourself and if the group isn’t for you, move on. The stakes are lower online, plus you still have your real life friends, right?
  4. Practise assertiveness. People will challenge your new behaviour. Don’t fold or apologise. When they accuse you of having changed, smile and say, “Thanks, I hope so.”
  5. Give yourself time to emerge. A snake sheds its old skin to grow only after the new skin has formed. It’s tender and delicate for a while and the snake will often hide until it feels safe again. Try out your new behaviours in sympathetic settings first. Read to your poetry group before entering a poetry slam. Visit the gym at quiet times before tackling that huge, intimidating spin class. Practise saying no to your annoying co-worker before your demanding boss. Note the response and adjust your aim next time.

Stepping outside the shared comfort zone of what’s expected will never be easy, but the pain of change is worth it. Approach with care, know the danger spots, and keep the end in mind.

Better to endure breaking down in the chrysalis and emerge a butterfly than refuse growth and stay a caterpillar forever.