blog, creativity, productivity

Is Self-Help Really For Everyone?

think before you choose your guru

helping-up_sasint
sasint via pixabay

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

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

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

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

Does this sound like you?

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

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

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

The Past Is A Different Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Things Being Unequal

Photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

You can’t get there from here.

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

But can you?

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

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

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

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

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

The question is…what do you do about that?

Before You Climb, Sit Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Are You Gonna Go Their Way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose Your Piece of the Pie

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

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

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

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

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


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

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

How to Escape the Blame Game and Reclaim Your Happiness

leave blame behind and take control

balloons-boy_bugent
bugent via pixabay

We all have baggage.

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.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

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.

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.
John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan

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.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

What’s Your Superpower?

Be your own hero

boy child clouds kid
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

 

I have a weird question for 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.

Stop Flogging the Horse

Most of us can instantly remember being corrected, disciplined, or criticised for some action. It still happens on a daily basis for many of us. We’re far more likely to recall events imprinted with negative emotions. The negative memories guide our future behaviour for years to come.

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

LEGO Batman, Wonder Woman, Sonic Hedgehog, and Harry Potter Gandalf toys

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.

  • Tennis backhand
  • 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
  • Remembering numbers
  • 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

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

New adults, old times

the nest is never quite empty

dennisflarsen via pixabay

 

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.

Meantime… dinner at seven okay for everyone?

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Poor mum, rich kid

we are prisoners of our past

yogurt_LeFox
LeFox via pixabay

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.
Carl Jung

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.

It’s time to move on.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Press pause

stop to go forward

boat-aground_HypnoArt
HypnoArt via pixabay

We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.

It’s exhausting.

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.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Experience is overrated

more is not always better

fallow-deer_LubosHouska
LubosHouska via pixabay

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.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

A la recherche du lait perdu

a little thing unlocks the past

milk bottle
glass milk bottle

This object may be unfamiliar to some, now that milk comes almost exclusively in plastic jugs. Or in bags, so I’ve heard, if you live in Canada. But before plastic bottles and supermarkets, milk came in glass bottles, left on your doorstep by a milkman who collected your empties.

We’ve all heard about Proust’s petite madeleine, and how it triggered a memory of his childhood. If you watch the film Ratatouille, there is a lovely homage to this. The sneering food critic Anton Ego, a grey and joyless man, is transported back to his warm, colourful boyhood by a single mouthful of ratatouille like his mother used to make. It is a defining moment for him.

Last year I spent a few days at a cottage in Wales. The owners had left a few basic food items in the fridge, one of which was the bottle of milk pictured above. Yes, I was so amazed that I took a photo of it.

Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and me

Margaret Thatcher was renowned as the first woman Prime Minister of Britain. But before her ascent to be first among equals, she was infamous for abolishing free milk in schools. Every child in infant schools received a bottle of milk daily, around a third of a pint. It was a great honour to be appointed milk monitor, helping the teacher hand out the bottles, each with a straw to be poked through the foil top. This was of course full cream, homogenised milk, semi-skimmed was yet to be invented.

I hated it.

These days I’d wear my label of lactose intolerance proudly. In those days such nonsense wasn’t tolerated. You drank your milk, or else. During the cold days of winter, the paper straw had to be plunged through an ice cap to reach the freezing milk below. It chilled my mouth and sat uneasily in my rebellious stomach, leaving me with a bloated discomfort till lunchtime.

I learned to keep quiet about it. Complaining did no good. Consequently, when other people criticised her, I silently applauded Mrs Thatcher, milk snatcher.

Milk, my mother, and me

 

hot chocolate with cream and cup
Hans via pixabay

Was it just the temperature? Not really. Fast forward a few years. My parents worked shifts, and if my mother was doing earlies (6am to 2pm) she would heat a pan of milk for our breakfast before she left for work. We would wake to warm milk for our Weetabix or shredded wheat, the aroma filling the kitchen. At bedtime, she heated more milk to make Ovaltine or drinking chocolate. It should have been comforting. My siblings loved it.

I ate toast.

Even writing this recalls the smell of boiled milk, and my stomach shifts. Years after that, I would flee from people making hot milk. These days, I don’t mind hot chocolate, as long as I don’t have to smell the milk heating.

But I see a glass milk bottle, and I’m five years old again, dreading morning break and the forced drink that grown-ups said was good for me.

I might have been young, but I knew my own mind. The milk bottle taught me that I didn’t have agency and shouldn’t talk back to adults.

Today, the glass milk bottle reminds me that the world has moved on. Thank goodness.

 

 

blog

This ordinary world we live in

helping-up_sasint
sasint via pixabay

 

The world is wonderful, crazy, ugly, cruel, beautiful, hostile, trusting, tiny, enormous. The world is a million different things, all of them contradictory, just like the people in it. And it can be hard to pick out the good, filter the bad, and stay positive.

It’s even harder to make a difference. What does that mean, really? Perhaps to pass through this life, have some fun, and leave it in better shape in some way. Yet most of us cannot write a classic, paint a masterpiece, build a monument, or earn a star on the Walk of Fame. All we have is everyday acts in mundane lives. But here’s the thing.

We can’t change the whole world, but we can change people. We can’t change people, but we can change their minds. We can’t change their minds, but we can change their experience.

When we change their experience, they change their own minds, their own behaviour, and their own worlds.

 This happened to me

Early one Tuesday morning, I parked in a distant corner of a windswept station car park. I rarely used the train, but I had a conference to attend, and driving wasn’t practical. I also knew that parking was expensive, so a few days before I’d changed some notes for a handful of one pound coins. I waited my turn to feed the meter behind a smartly dressed woman, my bag of coins jingling like treasure in my pocket.

The woman dug through her purse, then wailed, “Oh no.” She searched her handbag, muttering to herself. “I don’t have time,” she said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“No, no, I have to catch the 7.47 and I’m out of change, there’s no time.” She glanced over to the ticket office, and I made the calculations with her.

Three minutes’ walk there in heels, wait in the queue, buy something, get some change, three minutes’ walk back. Assuming she had her ticket already. It was already 7.30 and the timing was tight.

I checked the price list, weighed the money in my hand. “How much do you need?”

“I’m £3 short, but—”

“Here.” I passed her three coins, and her mouth dropped open. “Take it, I brought extra.”

“I’ve got a £10 note, I’ll give it back to you,” she said. She sniffed, and blinked rapidly. “Thank you so much. Which train are you getting?”

“Same as you, but don’t worry about it.”

We bought our tickets and she skipped back to her car. Some minutes later, as I waited on the platform, she brought me the money with a smile.

“You saved my life,” she said.

Maybe it was synchronicity. I had extra coins and she needed them. Neither of us knew that our chance meeting would change our lives, if only briefly. Was she going to an interview, a vital meeting, a date? I’d never know, but I knew I felt better, and so did she. My boring conference day was lit by the soft glow of knowing I’d made a tiny, but important difference.

This also happened to me

Traffic crawled slowly in the rain-lashed evening dark. I tried to calm my breathing, but couldn’t stop my leg bouncing. We had booked this concert not knowing the venue, rushed to drive up after work, and now we were going to be late. The queue inched forward, and when we finally got into the multi storey it was full. Up and up we went, eventually parking in the furthest corner of the roof level.

I grabbed my coat and purse, and queued again in the cold. It was more expensive than I thought, and I’d brought all the change from the car. I could have wept. At least no-one would see my tears, on cheeks already wet from waiting without an umbrella. I exhaled, and someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Are you short? Take what you need.” He held out his hand, full of coins. Right then they were more precious to me than treasure.

I looked at him and smiled. “Thank you, I just ran out of change.”

“No bother, pet.”

I fed the meter, ran back to the car with the ticket, and we made it to our seats just in time. I blessed my unknown saviour for his generosity, and my tension fell away, ready to enjoy the evening.

Did he feel virtuous? I hope so, because he turned my whole day around.

Maybe it was synchronicity. Our good deeds send positive vibrations into the universe, and just sometimes it echoes back in our own time of need. We already live in a world that is supportive, helpful, encouraging, and loving. When we see it that way, we can all change our corner of the world, one generous act at a time.

 

First published in The Creative Cafe on Medium, 9th March

 

 

blog

After the storm, new beginnings

tree-stump-stones_niederrheiner
niederrheiner via pixabay

A huge storm blew through here yesterday. On my way back to work, I was stopped by an enormous oak tree that came down, taking part of an old stone wall with it and blocking the road entirely. Along with many others, I had to turn my car around and find another way.

Today, I see the tree surgeons have done their work. Vast trunks and branches lie sliced up on the side of the road, never again to see in the spring with green shoots. The weather now is cool, but bright and calm. If not for that pile of lumber, you’d never know the drama that unfolded here.

I think life is like this.

You spend years, decades even, building something strong and vital. It gives you comfort, protection, meaning. Then you watch as the storm grips that impressive canopy, rocks it and, finding it unyielding, overcomes the roots and the stem and all its strength. It shrieks, and cracks, and topples ungracefully.

You shout and rage and cry.

Someone, who hasn’t seen the storm, says it’s better this way. It was probably rotten at the roots. At least no-one was killed. You want to scream at them. They don’t understand.

You weep, for a while.

Then, you roll up your sleeves and clear away the fallen limbs. And something shifts. Once dark places are now light. In the ground, hidden life stirs. Daffodils push up through the soil, long forgotten seeds take root. There is space now, space to fill with new, exciting things.

And look, here is something you can use. Destruction begets creation; a table, a chair, a sculpture. Small branches make kindling for a fire. Fantastic fungi appear in autumn, and snow dusts the last crumbling branches with a veil of white.

Our creations, like our lives, are not meant to last forever.

Relationships, careers, structures are built, destroyed, mourned, and built anew. There is no escaping change. It is often resisted, and all the more painful for it. And it sweeps away the old, the rigid, the unexamined elements that are not as solid as they look. Once we dismantle our misconceptions and assumptions about what is permanent, the way ahead becomes clearer.

In the calm after the storm comes a chance to regroup, rethink, rebuild better and stronger.

At least, for now.