Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want. Stanley Kubrick
How much time do you spend doing things you don’t want to do? I’m betting quite a bit.
As a child, you race towards adulthood in search of a mythical time when you’ll cast off the powerlessness of childhood and start doing exactly what you want.
And yet, the older you get, the more you realise adulthood is more about what you don’t want. The shine wears off a job and lifestyle you thought you wanted. And to maintain them you’re bound to a whole series of actions you’d rather skip.
Maybe, as Thoreau said, most of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. From that position, the only act of power left is to say no. If you can’t get what you want, you can still avoid what you don’t want.
Is it that simple?
What Came Out In The Wash
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw
We all know that communication is the key to good relationships. Despite that, we carry deep-seated assumptions and prejudices into our closest interactions without thinking to question or even acknowledge them.
In the early years, doctors in training work long, long hours. I recall when my partner was pulling a heavy on-call burden of two nights per week and two out of five weekends, plus commuting to the hospital. He moved in with me; I did our combined laundry and housework.
Things went along fine until I came home one night after my own stressful weekend on call, while he had been at home resting. My house looked like a bomb had gone off.
“Why haven’t you cleaned up or done laundry?”
“I’m tired and I just didn’t want to do it.”
His response gave me an insight into his mind. It was a rare moment of truth, though I was too mad to appreciate that right then.
Much later, I was able to break it down as follows.
I realised that he relied on emotion to guide his actions.
He assumed that I did the same.
He observed me doing housework without complaint.
Therefore he inferred that I did it because I liked it.
This isn’t so much about gender roles as emotional styles. His was if it feels good do it but more importantly if it feels bad don’t do it.
The problem is, that commonly held attitude won’t get you ahead in life.
Sweat The Small Stuff
You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction. Alvin Toffler
You want to feel good and you don’t want to feel bad. That’s a basic instinct for every living creature. But the really good stuff lies on the far side of “bad” stuff. Any success is built on many hours of routine, boring effort. A great performance is an iceberg; one-tenth visible brilliance and nine-tenths hidden trial, error, and reiteration.
A painter cleans brushes, a gardener picks weeds, and a singer practises scales because these menial jobs build the foundations of their craft. Without a solid foundation, the most astonishing building will topple and eventually fail.
Without perseverance and the discipline to do what has to be done repeatedly, you’ll never develop the grit you need to succeed.
When you’re stuck with stuff that feels bad in the moment but still needs doing for various reasons, you need ways to take care of the things you really don’t want to do.
Feelings Don’t Work
Boxing is not about your feelings. It’s about performance. Manny Pacquiao
Perhaps you think my story about laundry was just a silly domestic spat. We should have agreed a rota at the outset or something like that. You’d just get stuff done without fuss.
But I bet there is something that you haven’t done.
Something you should do, but you can’t bring yourself to start. A conversation, a letter, an action. Every time you think of it, your mind makes excuses and shies away.
You know this action will ultimately lead to a real benefit. You still don’t do it.
You’re trapped in an endless loop of feelings. No matter how trivial or important the task appears, it conjures up anxiety and avoidance that are usually symptoms of something deeper; fear of rejection, fear of failure, or shame. Those unnamed emotions lead to procrastination, which only amplifies them.
There are ways to escape this trap without therapy or suffering.
Name your feelings and set them aside. This is the “just do it” school of thought. It is what it is. Push through your boredom or fatigue, load the washer, and get it done.
Put a reward on the other side. Made a difficult phone call? Have a cookie.
Focus on the outcome and not the process. You want clean clothes, doing laundry is the way to get them.
Feel the fear. Perhaps there are bad consequences to leaving your task undone. You’ll get fired for coming to work in ripped jeans, or laughed at for wearing a formal gown to your retail job because your work clothes were dirty. Rather than avoiding the task itself, avoid feeling even worse by doing your laundry.
Ask “Super Me” to do it. Super Me is you, but stronger. Super Me doesn’t agonise over a phone call or email, scared to make a fool of herself. Super Me knows that even if she stumbles a little, the world will not end. But she won’t stumble because she’s prepared and ready. Super Me knows how to deal with rejection and in that case, she’ll find another way.
Review the need for the task. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be done by you. If you can reasonably delegate, do so. Pay for a laundry service. Teach your older children to do their own laundry, which is a basic life skill. If it’s a precious clothing item, maybe it would be safer if dry-cleaned.
Drop it. This is only after careful thought that concludes this task demands much more input than the result deserves. Many “shoulds and oughts” drop into this category. It may be a friend who never listens and constantly demands your time; a relative you see out of duty; or drinks after work you don’t enjoy with people you don’t like. If the mere thought of dropping it fills you with relief, and you’ve been honest in your cost/benefit assessment, you’re on the right track. Go ahead and make a positive decision to decline gracefully.
Do It Now
If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Mark Twain
Research tells us that willpower is a limited resource. Since procrastination is almost inevitable when it comes to doing the thing you don’t want to do, it follows that willpower needs careful management.
So when you’ve found the right strategy to do the thing, do it now. And if you can’t do it now, do it as early in the day as possible, before your willpower is depleted by forcing yourself to be civil rather than cursing at your co-worker or relative.
In other words, decide how you’re going to eat that frog and then, without hesitation, swallow it whole. It won’t taste as bad as you feared. As a bonus, everything else will taste much better, now that’s out of the way.
As for me and my partner, I explained that I subscribed to the “get it done” school and he needed to get with the programme. I despise domestic work to this day, but tolerate it in order to enjoy a tidy living space. We got on the same page, eventually. You can too if you can ask the right questions and listen to the answers.
You’re avoiding something. Get it done and off your plate. Get on with the next thing.
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
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?
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.
Yours isn’t the same as mine but it’s all heavy. It weighs us down in the present because we can’t face the future without looking back at what happened in the past.
And then we place blame.
“I can’t succeed as a writer because my English teacher said I lacked imagination.”
“I can’t get close to anyone because my mother said I was unlovable.”
“I lack confidence because someone said I was ugly.”
Blame lets you off the hook. The blame game is satisfying because it allows you to simultaneously wallow in past hurt and dodge any remedial actions. It’s not your fault, you cry. People or life or the universe did you wrong. You can’t help the position you’re in.
Well, guess what? That story you tell yourself and anyone who’ll listen is BS.
Not My Fault!
A few years ago The Secret by Rhonda Byrne swept to the top of bestseller lists all over the world. It sold people one beguiling idea: that you could bring about anything you wanted by asking the Universe for it. It repackaged ideas about the power of positive thinking that had been around since Think and Grow Rich was written in 1937 and brought them into the modern age.
But this bright smiley idea has a dark side. It’s this; if bad things happen, you brought them on yourself by negative thinking. Got laid off? Ill health? Betrayed by someone? You weren’t thinking right and now it’s your fault.
This idea is insidious and fails to acknowledge that some people have very real challenges that aren’t necessarily avoidable. Nobody chooses a hard life if they have a choice.
In this case, something bad happened and it was not your fault. You shouldn’t blame yourself for events that are out of your direct control.
Fault lies with whoever caused the event.
Blame is something you lay at the feet of the person who caused it.
But while they are responsible for causing the event, you also have a responsibility. It’s your job to fix yourself.
Still On The Hook
Understand you’re not letting the person responsible off the hook. If your father was a violent alcoholic, he made his choices and acted accordingly. Your task now is to choose how you go forward from the place you find yourself in through no fault of your own.
Constantly pointing back to the past won’t help. You have to accept the task of building your own happiness, without either sacrificing it on the altar of blame or outsourcing it to someone or something else.
It’s not necessary to forgive what happened. Remember that forgiveness is a gift for you, not a prize for wrongdoing. You get the benefit; you release yourself from the burden of grief and move forward with a lighter heart.
That might be too much to ask. But it’s not necessary to forgive or forget. What you must do is focus on yourself and your future.
Time To Take Charge
It may not be your fault, but it is for sure your responsibility to fix it. Will Smith
Will Smith posted a short video in which he explains his idea. He advocates reclaiming your power by facing the truth of your situation and any necessary change head-on but leaving fault behind.
Once again, the person with a strong internal locus of control is better equipped for the task of forging their own path. They’re used to setting their own standards and goals before working out how to achieve them. They accept help if needed and work together with their advisers to succeed.
The person with an external locus of control believes that when things happen to them they’re relatively powerless to change the outcome. They look for answers and remedies outside themselves and are typically passive observers of their lives. They want to be saved. They get angry when the solutions don’t magically appear and don’t expect to exert any effort to achieve them.
But It’s Not Fair
I know the world isn’t fair, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor? Bill Watterson
From my first day of school, I faced relentless bullying. It never really stopped as I got older, it simply changed. The boys chanting names behind five-year-old me all the way home gave way to the woman who was enraged that eighteen-year-old me got the university place that rightly belonged to her son. And so on.
I was hurt and confused and angry. I wasn’t at fault, I simply existed in the same space as people who thought I shouldn’t be there. Many tears were shed in secret.
We all live in a story of our own making. Sometimes we write the script, other times we speak other people’s words. We don’t always control the scenes. But our lives are stories, and we can change them.
So you’re going to take a long hard look at some of the scripts that run your life. You’re going to be brutally honest about how you react to the bad stuff. And you’re going to change and do better.
For me, that means acknowledging things that have happened without laying blame. Blame is a trap that steals both agency and hope.
People act at their current level of thinking, and they cannot do better until they think better. It’s not my job to change their minds. It’s my job to change mine.
I have to do the work of repairing my wounds, grow a thicker skin, strengthen my resolve, and claim the life I want. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but that’s life and we deserve to thrive despite it all.
Get Up That Ladder
If lightning strikes your roof, you can cry or curse the weather. The rain will keep coming in as long as you fail to fix the problem that you didn’t cause.
Or you get out the ladder and call someone who can help because you’re the one getting wet. Choosing to stay wet? That’s on you.
Stuff happens. It is what it is. What the future will be is up to you.
How special do you feel right now? Over seven billion people on this planet, and there’s nobody quite like you.
But unique isn’t always enough, is it?
You feel ordinary, nondescript, forgettable. Even though you’re trying hard to be more, make a difference, stand out somehow, it’s not working. You feel like a failure because the gap between where you are and where you want to be is so great.
So what do you do about it? Let’s start with what definitely won’t work.
Feedback Doesn’t Work
You’re realistic about what you can achieve.
Your goals are SMART. You write, but you’re not JK Rowling. You sing, but you’re not Beyonce. You play soccer, but you’re not Lionel Messi.
You take stock of your skillset and work on your weaknesses. You take on board the lessons of constructive critique.
Playing only by these rules traps you in a limiting cycle of assessment and remediation.
Can you recall being praised for doing something really well? How long ago was that?Yet being rewarded for doing something well makes it more likely that you will do it again.
Positive reinforcement works, whether we are learning to tango or training a dog to fetch a ball. Positive reinforcement rewards desired behaviour. Each time you do something that brings you closer to the desired standard in any way, you get a reward.
Rewards are tangible like money, or intangible like time or praise. Praise is one of the most potent rewards of all because it’s rare, and winning genuine praise from a person you respect is a great motivator.
Positive reinforcement rewards effort, not just the final result. Reaching a standard involves repeated effort that moves closer to the target, and rewarding the work done motivates you to keep trying even when the goal is still some way off. That’s crucial when undertaking a lengthy project or course of study.
Bad To Be Good
Some skills come easy. And we are conditioned to believe that if they come easy, they aren’t as valuable as those that are hard won. The teacher doesn’t praise your descriptive prose, she focuses on your weak grammar. The parent ignores your accurate scale model of the Death Star but focuses on your low grade in maths.
Over time your confidence in the things that you can do with ease, the things you enjoy, is eroded. You’re trained to discount your talents in favour of endless remedial work on things that are valued more. You’re forever failing. How does that feel?
Time to reset your approach and accentuate the positive.
The Humility Trap
Some people have a hard time identifying anything they’re good at. They feel uncomfortable even thinking about it. This usually relates to a time when they showed skill and were reprimanded for it.
Perhaps you were told to stop showing off, to be humble and modest, not to rub it in people’s faces. You remember how it felt to be slapped down for thinking you were better than the next person when you were probably worse.
Your discomfort is rooted in shame, a deep and pervasive human emotion. Shame is corrosive. Shame bypasses the behaviour and sticks to the person, leaving a sense of wrongness that’s hard to describe but easy to take on board.
Negative value judgements by important figures can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem.
You learned to keep your head down because the tall poppy standing above the others gets cut down. Even heroes of popular culture are revered one day and vilified the next.
These comments are expressions of envy. Building strong self-esteem helps you shrug off the hateful comments. They hurt, but you move past them because you know what you’re here to do.
Performing a task successfully gives us a sense of being in control and achieving a goal. The more often we do this the greater our feeling of self-efficacy. It follows that performing tasks we enjoy and are good at increases confidence.
Achieving mastery of a task is one of the best ways to increase self-efficacy. It promotes a positive attitude to change, and willingness to engage with challenges that serve us well in every area of life.
You have the right to be good.
Every Facet Shines
An elite practitioner spends many hours working on their weaker areas. But they also work on their strengths, the things they are good at. To be elite is to grow in all areas, not just one or two. Exercising skills makes us happier, more attractive to others, and more confident.
People who possess confidence without arrogance and believe in their own abilities are happier than those who have low self-esteem. The belief that you can change and improve your own life is built on setting goals and reaching them. This confidence supports all areas of life, as long as you have a growth mindset. That is, you believe that you can learn and change throughout life; your skills are not fixed in stone.
A person with a growth mindset isn’t limited by where they are currently because they know they can learn new things. They acknowledge their skills, and then they amplify those skills. They value their talents, therefore they work on them and use them, which makes them happier and more likely to repeat the behaviour.
A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals. Larry Bird
Focus On The Right Things
What’s your superpower?
It’s the thing that comes easier to you than others. You don’t know how you do it, you just do. You learn and improve quickly, even if you struggle with other things. It might be part of a bigger skillset or stand alone.
Packing a suitcase
Playing a new song by ear after hearing it once
Knowing all your sports team’s stats for the last five years
Sense of direction
Affinity for animals
Making a meal from leftovers
You might not need or use these exact skills every day, but when you do they bring a smile to your face. You did it and you did it well. Why not smile and feel good about yourself more often?
Own Your Power
Think of your superpower.
What do you find easy and enjoyable? What makes you smile?
You’re going to do more of that. Take your sports knowledge to the pub trivia team. Get out your guitar and play along with the radio. Read that story you wrote last year and enjoy the descriptions you got just right. Bake a pie because you’re a dab hand at it, take it to work for coffee break. Buy a book of Sudoku or download a game to your phone and play to the end. Instead of buying a card for your friend, paint a tiny canvas instead.
Why do this? Because you can.
Doing a thing well is its own reward. If you do something really well, in a way no-one else can, money may follow. If money were the only measure of success, the rich would be happier in proportion to their wealth. We all know that money is important but not the whole story.
Focus on how you feel about yourself and avoid the trap of more money, less happy.
We’re not here to blend into the background. We’re here for a short time, and our only purpose is to make the best use of that time.
I want to marvel at your ability to compose rude poems on the spot or drink a yard of ale without spilling a drop. I want to see your beautiful calligraphy or hear you sing Happy Birthday in four languages. Then I want to see you smile and feel good. Isn’t that better?
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. Marianne Williamson
My son is home for the summer from University. My daughter never left, since she chose a college five miles away. She’s working now in a job not worthy of her first class degree, but okay for a start.
It’s been good for her, but this isn’t how I planned it.
She was meant to do what I did; fly the nest at eighteen with never a backward glance. She is part of a modern trend, whereby more adults aged 18–34 live with their parents than ever before. She can’t afford even a tiny rented place of her own on her current salary. I bought my first house aged twenty-five, on a mortgage of twice my salary. I try not to think about how or when she will be able to do the same.
So we’re four, a nuclear family again. Just like old times, except not. They’re adults. They don’t have to tell me what time they’re coming home. But I do have to include them in dinner plans apparently, except for when I don’t because he’s been invited to Tom’s ad hoc barbecue and oh, can you give me a lift?
I’m struggling to calibrate my parenting. On a scale from ‘call social services’ to ‘paranoid mama bear’ should I be ‘kitchen’s stocked, clear up after yourself’ or ‘give me your schedule, I’ll make that chicken casserole you like.’ Or something else entirely?
Back to the future
There’s something about returning to your childhood home that unearths long-hidden behaviour patterns and dysfunction. I saw that with my own siblings. Despite having partners and jobs and adult stuff, we still somehow lined up in age order, complete with ancient resentments about favouritism. It was ridiculous and exhausting.
We all get on, mostly, and I’m grateful. The family unit is reformed differently each time he returns, a minefield of unspoken rules and covert expectations between generations and siblings. I slide reluctantly into a role whose restrictions I was all too glad to leave behind. The apron strings bind both sides. Maybe they think I chose my role. Perhaps, but it is well past its expiry date, for me anyway.
Spread your wings and fly?
Around my garden, birds are feeding their young. It’s full time work, but at least there is a clear contract. I feed you until you’re as big as me. Then you’re on your own.
My kidults are caught between dependence and freedom. It feels to me like they have the best of both, feeding my resentment. Some lessons, like the mechanics of being fully responsible for yourself, cannot be taught. Those lessons must be lived and learned.
No doubt we should sit down together and lay ground rules, and we will. Just as soon as she gets back from her night out and he gets out of bed.
We all want to progress in life, don’t we? We want to improve, have more, do better. And of course we want the same for our children. Especially so if we come from humble beginnings. Recently I measured my progress using yogurt.
See that perfectly curated breakfast above? Bursting with protein, fresh berries and fruit, organic honey no doubt. It murmurs vitality and micronutrients and my body is a temple. It also says, I am well off. I can afford these ingredients and the time to make this hymn to healthy eating.
I don’t really have time for Instagrammable bowls of perfection, so I buy good quality yogurt with fruit and live bio cultures. My daughter watched me scrape the lid clean; maybe half a teaspoon’s worth. Any parent of older children is immune to the slightly pitying looks and sighs of their much cooler offspring, but I decided to play.
“At least I didn’t lick it,” I said.
“Ew. Why would you do that?”
‘To get the last bit, obviously. Don’t act like you’ve never done it.”
She rolled her eyes as she left the kitchen. “I’ve never done that. Gross.”
The yogurt lid of truth
I grew up in a large family where resources were scarce and you made the most of everything. Wasting anything that could be used was sacrilege. Hard work ensured my two children never had to cut mould off stale bread or go to bed hungry. We are comfortable. But here I am, still rinsing the last drop out of laundry liquid bottles and scraping tidbits off foil lids.
We are prisoners of our past.
We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what in the morning was true will by evening become a lie.
It’s a struggle to change ingrained habits. But sometimes little things are the marker of bigger changes under the surface. Today that marker is a yogurt lid with perfectly good yogurt clinging to it, thrown away without regret.
There was never enough in my childhood, but things are better now. I can relax and allow myself the benefits that my children take for granted, because there is enough and I will not be left wanting. With that change of mindset my focus moves from fear to gratitude, a much better place to be.
We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.
Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.
What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.
At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.
Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.
Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?
try this Go for a walk.
Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
Stretch your hands and back regularly.
Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?
try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?
You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.
Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.
Just don’t stop completely.
You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.
When we talk about experience we assume that more is always better. Those impressive antlers tell of years lived and challenges overcome. That’s something not every deer has. It is something to aspire to. And it’s a very good thing, if what you want is to get a set of antlers just like it.
But what if there’s more to the world? What if you aspire to see what’s beyond the forest and the herd, and live a bigger life? Then relying on years of in-forest living is at best wrong-headed and at worst, dangerous.
Years ago, I worked with a man who had big aspirations. He was a few years senior to me and our career paths would diverge after a year on the same team. He was very good at his job, but not the kind of person to invite to dinner; arrogant and insensitive. He said one thing that has stayed with me to this day.
Don’t be dazzled by people with more experience than you. It might be ten years of varied experiences, or one year of experience ten times over.
His words resonated with me as a young professional used to being patronised for being a greenhorn, amongst other things. True experience learns and enlarges itself, rather than treading the same path over and over until it becomes a deep rut.
In every fairy tale set in the woods, the heroine is told to stay on the path and stay safe. She should listen to the voice of the wise elder. But we all know that the real heart of the tale, the real learning experience, only happens when she strikes out to risk the unknown.
When we have some experience, we expect to command respect. Too often, people think that more years and grey hair entitle them to a louder voice. Well, that depends. While you’re growing bigger, heavier antlers, a hunter is fixing you in his crosshairs. You might wish you had listened to the little bird who flew over him, and tried to warn you.
Often creatives are exhorted to do this, or avoid that. Being an artist is flaky, you can’t make money from writing, poetry is old-fashioned, you won’t make it as a musician. Get a steady job (if such a thing even exists any more.) Sometimes these statements are well meaning.
But at their heart is fear: the fear that if you do try and maybe even succeed, the adviser’s own failure to follow their own path will be exposed. They might have had a different, bigger life. But they stayed on the path and played safe. Now they want you to do the same.
So when someone uses “experience” as a trump card in an argument, consider the source. Have they done what you hope to do? Have they lived the life they recommend, or implemented their own advice? Have they ever taken a risk?
If not, think again.
You may end up growing the wrong skills, in the wrong forest. And the hunter is coming.