The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Change is wonderful at first.
You decide to head in a new direction, full of enthusiasm and motivation. You can do this. But after some time you feel lost, stuck even.
Welcome to the messy middle.
You’re still far from the new self you want to be. It would be so easy to slip back into old habits. You’re caught between two forces: push away from the old or pull towards the new.
Push forces are strong at first. You reject what you don’t want, whether that’s a job title or a health status. But the further you get from the old, the weaker that push force is. The pull of the new isn’t strong enough to persuade you to put in the extra effort to become a butterfly.
A caterpillar enters the chrysalis and leaves its previous form behind. In fact it turns into a mass with no form at all. But it is programmed to keep changing towards its goal of being a butterfly, even though to achieve it means enduring a stage of being unrecognisable.
Think of the messy middle as your chrysalis stage.
First look back and remind yourself how far you’ve already come. Celebrate progress because by moving forward you’re already a winner.
Then focus on moving towards your goal at all times. Picture your new self in full colour. Write a statement describing what you’re working for, and look at it regularly. Fix the destination clearly in your mind and let it pull you forward. The closer you get, the stronger the pull will be.
Embrace the growth mindset, which says that you are always capable of developing and learning new things. It’s not that you are ‘just built that way’ or unlucky. Your efforts will get you where you want to be.
Marshal Your Forces
Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.
Change requires a great deal of energy. If you try to make too many changes at once, you’ll be overwhelmed and end up making none.
For example, your goal is to lose fifteen pounds. From your current position on the couch, you plan to go to the gym three times a week, jog twice every weekend, give up smoking and alcohol, switch to a paleo diet, and chronicle your transformation on Instagram. And you’re going to do all this in eight weeks, when your vacation is booked.
You’ve just set yourself up to fail. The changes and goals are too far from your current position. Instead, set yourself up to succeed by choosing one small change and making it stick.
The Force of Habits
We live by habits, which are essentially short cuts through life. Habits free up brain space for other things. It takes on average about two months to form a new habit. Chain them together to outwit your natural reluctance to do things differently.
Take the example above. Choose one thing, in this case going to the gym. First, define the best time to go. If it’s after work, pack your bag the night before and put it by the door. You see it as you leave the house. Pick it up, place it in your car.
Choose one night a week and set an alarm on your phone. Tuesday night, pack gym bag. Wednesday night, go to gym after work.
When you’re accustomed to one night a week, add another. Schedule it and repeat until it becomes habit. Then add more sessions until you have the desired set of habits.
Similarly if you want to write, start really small. Block out a sliver of time to write a few words every day. As little as ten minutes and 150 words is enough. When that’s bedded in, add more time and more words.
Don’t overload yourself. Make each new step easy so you can’t fail. Only add bigger challenges when each habit is ingrained.
Build your habits one baby step at a time.
The Force of Time
Change often fails because it all takes longer than we wanted, longer than we bargained for. We are addicted to instant gratification and an easy fix.
Yes, there are people who gave up smoking overnight, or hit their goal weight in six weeks. These are not average results, but outliers. Far better to be realistic about timescales and manage your expectations accordingly.
The Force of Process
Even when you can’t rely on results, you can rely on your process.
It’s hard to get the ball rolling, but if we continue to apply force it will keep rolling. This is why momentum is so valuable. When you’ve done the hard work of overcoming inertia, maintaining forward motion is less effort than starting from scratch again.
When you can’t see your destination, focus on the journey. Put in the miles, put in the hours, keep training until you break through the plateau. In other words, do the work. Forget about results in favour of simply showing up, day after day.
Note any emotional reactions you have — and put them aside. Feelings will slow you down and stand in your way. They exist, but in this context they’re not useful. Do you wonder how you feel about brushing your teeth, or do you just do it? Apply that thinking. Write about feelings in your journal if you want, but the force of process is strictly mechanical.
If you can, do more. More words, cleaner diet, heavier weights. Nothing you do is wasted. The win you need is closer than you think, as long as you keep going.
Eating The Elephant of Life
There are three constants in life…change, choice, and principles.
Life is a succession of changes. Whether we choose the change or not, we have to find a way to live through it and come out better in some way, ready for the next one. There is only one way to approach such a huge task, and that is step by step.
Just as you’d eat an elephant bite by bite and not in one mouthful, you must look at shifts in life as part of a greater whole. There will be times when you’re in deep and can’t see an end to it. You’ll feel overwhelmed and tempted to run back to the safety of your old ways. Know that this feeling is normal, expected, and temporary.
To thrive in the unstable environment called life you must scan the horizon to spot coming challenges, stay flexible and open to learning, and keep faith in your ability.
Most important of all, never give up.
It doesn’t matter how long change takes. Time will pass anyway. What matters is that you’re developing and growing as a human, making the most of your one life.
Have you given up on a dream?
You tell yourself that you’ll get back to it later. When the kids are grown, when you retire, when you have more money…then you’ll learn the guitar, get back to painting, write your novel.
Or you tell yourself it’s too late. Too much time has gone by and you can’t change your body, your relationship, your job. So you settle for the inevitability of further decline.
There’s no escaping the march of time. But it holds opportunity too.
An Acorn Is Not A Tree — Yet
Somebody is sitting in the shade today because somebody planted a tree a long time ago.
The idea that we overestimate what can be achieved in the short term and underestimate what can be achieved in the long term has been attributed to Bill Gates, among others.
It’s like failing to harvest mature wood from an oak sapling, then abandoning it because you think it will never grow big enough to be worthwhile.
Often we start something in a flush of enthusiasm. But when it doesn’t yield significant results immediately, we get discouraged and give up. The gym routine, language class, or novel is dropped because you thought for sure that a month or two of effort would be enough to make progress.
But take a different view. How would future you feel if you persevered with small efforts now? In five years, what can you achieve by daily practice?
Graphic designer Ethan Tennier-Stuart showed stunning improvement over five years. Every skill responds to deliberate practice. Talent has to be matched with effort to achieve its potential.
Small Numbers Still Count
All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.
Everything starts off small — a word, a note, a brick — but put enough of them together and you can build something astonishing.
Write two hundred words daily and you’ll have enough material for four novels. Writing over a third of a million words is guaranteed to hone your skills.
Years ago I wanted to write seriously. But I was juggling home and work and exhaustion, and couldn’t see how to find time or energy for it.
So I committed to one hundred and fifty words daily after dinner, whatever happened, even if I just typed I’m so tired over and over. Sometimes it was gibberish but eventually those words turned into short stories, then a novella.
If I’d waited for the ideal conditions I might never have started. My daily goal was tiny, but that’s exactly what made it achievable. Persistence pays off in the end.
When it comes to ageing, we can’t turn the clock back. But we can slow some processes down. Future you will thank present you for wearing sunscreen daily, cutting out that dessert or bread roll, and getting enough sleep.
Walk thirty minutes daily and you’ll see your health improve. Make time to connect with a child daily, and reap the benefits. You’ll build better connection in fifteen intentional minutes daily than in the most amazing annual vacation.
It’s all about building big improvements in small increments.
One step after another in the right direction will take you as far as you need to go. Don’t discount any small amount of progress — success is built of innumerable tiny actions.
The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Make time work with you, instead of feeling helpless.
Time will pass anyway, so use it to build something you’ll be proud of. Pick up your first pebble right now and start to move your personal mountain.
Adulthood isn’t all that.
From the moment of birth, you’re taught how to behave and be accepted in the world.
Adulthood means submitting when life knocks off the corners and edges that don’t fit in your assigned box.
Adulthood means growing up, and growing up means forgetting all those ridiculous daydreams.
Your parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They taught you that success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.
You forgot to look up at stars and sky, and wonder.
You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be. Society rewards conformity with peer and elder approval and punishes the maverick with exclusion and ridicule. Who wants to be that guy?
But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts during a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.
Deep down, you know something’s missing from your life.
No Dreams, No Wings
If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.
None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created by realists. Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.
Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea has no mass. It can be as expansive as your imagination. Ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.
Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement.To produce something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, and computers.
That’s how you’ll get to where you want to be.
Voices In Your Head
You can’t believe everything people tell you — not even if those people are your own brain.
When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.
Your father no longer scares you so much that you never look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.
When you find yourself browsing painting sets online, an old art teacher whispers that you don’t have an artist’s eye. And you click away because that’s not for you.
Here’s the thing. You’re an adult — no-one is the boss of you. You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions.
At some point you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.
The past experiences and attached emotions that make up much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. Once you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you free yourself from it. That was then and this is now.
You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.
That’s when you truly grow up.
A Lost Child
The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Everyone has their share of bad experiences. You’ve been shaped by them to some extent. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to find something better.
This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books such as these to guide your journey. Or you might need to let go of your old programming and try new ways, like Julia Cameron’s artist dates in The Artist’s Way.
We are all innately creative. It is possible to be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.
From Reality To Fantasy
Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.
Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.
Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.
- Security: safety, stability
- Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
- Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
- Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning
Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.
One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’
Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean your dream is on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.
This visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.
Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. In the future, you’ve achieved your dream. What does it look like?
You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book. At a party, you say confidently, “This is my latest project.”
Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.
There Are No Limits
If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish first in a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. It can only come true if you first create it mentally.
When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, fix it in your mind with an anchor. The anchor is a physical sensation. Linking the sensation with the vision makes it easier to recall. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.
Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.
Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They have a clearly defined image of success, and that allows them to work towards it knowing that they are heading in the right direction. And the image can be a comfort when things are not going so well. The prize is still out there, waiting for you to reach it.
Where Are You Going?
It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.
Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, you can check activity against whether it moves you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up chocolate because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside to make enough money to live on by writing copy.
Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.
Go get it.
This isn’t life in the fast lane, it’s life in the oncoming traffic.
I was Iron Man once.
It all started with an invisible birthday. You know, one where you have appropriately low expectations and still you come away disappointed. Instead of getting resentful or angry, I did the grown-up thing and bought my own damn gift.
Back then I was deep in the trenches of life, juggling my practice, children, spouse, and parents. Everything was top priority except me. While driving home late one evening a sleek black car passed me by, slung low to the ground with a restrained purr. I watched it disappear in my rearview mirror, knowing I’d never be able to own anything like that. Where would the kids go, and the guitar, and the cello, and the dog?
But a seed had been planted. Months later, I booked myself a supercar experience day. It was time to change the script.
Go Your Own Way
When I’m a bit sad I just go for a drive in the country, quite fast with my music up.
The world is full of people ready to tell you why you can’t do something just because they can’t envision themselves doing it. I turned up to an old airfield for the track driving day feeling both apprehensive and excited. Everyone I asked was busy that day so I went alone, and soon found that all the other women there were part of a couple.
Did they regard me with pity, disdain, amusement, or disapproval? I chose not to worry about those possibilities, and instead watched the cars flying around the track. We were all there to enjoy fast cars, and their opinions of me were unimportant.
Other people’s expectations and judgement will throw you off course. Often the best plan is to keep your own counsel. Don’t talk about what you will do. Just do it, and let actions speak for themselves.
In The Driving Seat
I am not reggae, I am me. I am bigger than the limits that are put on me. It all has to do with the individual journey.
We listened to our safety briefing, and then the instructors came to collect each couple for their drive around the track. While I watched the first few people take their laps, a man asked me if I’d really come alone. I told him it was my birthday treat to myself, and he gave me a pitying smile.
“So there’s nobody to take photos of you? Well, never mind.”
We say pics or it didn’t happen because modern society runs on proof that can be posted to social media. But photos are only a proxy for experience. Memories matter.
In the end, there’s only one person in the driver’s seat and that’s you. Don’t wait for someone else to agree, go out there and do your thing regardless.
A Helping Hand
I used to have horrible cars that would always end up broken down on the highway. When I tried to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But if I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself – people like to see that.
Soon it was my turn to be called. Joe, my instructor, was totally unfazed that I was alone. He pointed out the controls on the Audi R8 and let me get used to the unfamiliar paddle shift. Signs around the track reminded drivers when to brake and change gear, but with so much happening it was hard to take it all in.
That’s when the calm voice of my instructor cut through my adrenaline, giving instruction and suggestions. This intense driving experience took me back to being a new driver, overwhelmed by inputs from every direction. As hard as it seemed, I had to take a breath and listen, even as I also steered through curves and held on down the straights.
Find a coach or mentor for your activity, whatever it is. Be humble about your lack of knowledge and respectful of theirs. Open your mind and be teachable, and you’ll find yourself going further and moving faster.
Need For Speed
If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.
By the start of my last lap, I relaxed a little. The car was unlike anything I’d ever driven; more powerful, more precise, more responsive, more everything. My top speed of one hundred and thirty-two was more than enough to keep me happy.
My instructor had other ideas.
After steering through a fast chicane that was already a favourite, I accelerated towards the second last turn.
“Keep your foot down,” he said.
“Really?” I eased off, obeying years of ingrained caution.
“Not yet.” Joe seemed unconcerned by the rapid approach of the Brake Now sign.
We barrelled towards the turn, every red light flashing in my brain. Surely this was certain to end badly?
“You’re all right. You have time.”
At that moment time slowed down. Joe had put his life quite literally in my hands, so I had to trust myself too.
The brake sign was a distant memory and my mouth was dry, but I focused, listening for one word. Nothing else existed.
I braked hard. The car responded to my every command, following the curve cleanly and then bursting forward in an explosion of glorious speed that took me all the way to the finish line.
You can go further, harder, faster than you believe, with a little encouragement at the right time. Going beyond the limits you set yourself even once is exhilarating, building self-belief and the confidence to dare again.
So stretch your goals, ask more of yourself than you think you can do. If you can be that person urging someone on, do it. Show them the faith they don’t yet have in themselves.
A Dream In Parts
A psychologist said to me, there are only two important questions you have to ask yourself. What do you really feel? And, what do you really want? If you can answer those two, you probably can leave your neuroses behind you.
I drove home buzzing after my track experience in a sensible family car that suited my needs at that time. Parking, speed bumps, vandalism and lack of interior space would have made daily ownership of a supercar impractical.
But any dream can be broken into parts, some of which are within your grasp even if you have to stretch. The first step is to know what you dream of. The second is to look for ways to make it happen.
The dream of owning an R8 that had been ignited by a chance encounter seemed impossible. I had to rethink the parameters.
Consider renting, borrowing, or sharing a dream.
For a short time, enjoy the benefits of a fast car, a beach house, or a city penthouse. Then give back the keys and walk away without having to worry about the grim realities of upkeep and insurance.
Before you do even that, dig a little deeper. What do you really want? What does the car, the house, or the title of CEO really mean for you? Uncovering your motivations steers you in the right direction so you won’t spend time and energy in the wrong place.
For me, the car represented more than the money needed to buy it. It worked perfectly. When I asked, it responded. For once there was no compromise – I got exactly what I wanted. Having complete control was exhilarating.
Dream car = total freedom.
Every time I see an Audi R8 I smile and remember. That joy alone, repeated over years since my drive, repaid the cost and difficulty of making it happen a thousand times over.
So the next time you find yourself fantasising, ask yourself what does this dream represent? How can I bring it within my grasp?
Then ignore the naysayers and make it real, just for you. You deserve it.
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There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Do you know what you want?
Our desires vary from the mundane need to scratch an itchy back to the intangible urge for self-actualisation.
You’re looking for satisfaction but you aren’t very good at figuring out what satisfaction looks like.
You’re like that person who can’t decide what to order. They look at the menu, ask what’s in every dish, wonder if they’re not really hungry, and bounce from one item to another until you want to scream.
Here are three possible reasons why you “struggle to order.”
- Wrong place
- Wrong timing
- Not hungry
Each of these issues requires a different solution.
Can I Get Extra Cheese On That?
You could have everything right but be in the wrong place. You think your business is no good, but really, the problem is your place is no good.
When you’re hungry for pizza and you stop in the first restaurant you find, there’s a high chance that the menu won’t suit you. The more specific your desires, the less likely that you’re in the right place.
You might want to create something. Trying to write a novel when you really want to build a scale model of the Eiffel Tower will only lead to frustration.
Identifying the details of your desire means asking more questions. The 5 Whys technique is useful for getting to the heart of a matter. If you want to do something, ask why. Repeat up to five times until you reach the kernel of truth. That often manifests as an “aha!” moment.
It seems obvious, but you’ll get the things you want more quickly if you’re looking in the right place.
No Stars in the Daytime
In fashion as in life, the right thing at the right time is the right thing. The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.
Suppose you want steak and a glass of Chianti, but it’s nine in the morning and the restaurant is only serving breakfast. You’re in the right place at the wrong time. No amount of effort on your part can change day into evening.
Life tends to happen when you’re not looking. An unexpected pregnancy, change of job, or illness can derail your plans so that there’s no way to make them work at that time. The only way through is around. You’ll have to recalculate your route to the goal, taking time into account as a major variable.
Taking a longer view and reframing it as a definite goal helps to diffuse the frustration and disappointment of putting something off. Rather than vaguely saying you’ll do it later, take control and commit to specifics.
The statement “I will apply for X course in January 2021” feels very different to “This sucks – I’m missing school because of family issues and it’s not fair.” Sometimes it really isn’t your fault, but it’s still up to you to fix it.
Time is elastic. You have more than you think, especially when viewed from a lifetime perspective. There’s almost always another chance to do something, though you might have to approach it differently. As Oprah said, you can have it all – just not all at once.
You Can’t Get There From Here
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
Your meal is in front of you, but do you want what you ordered? Consider whether your hunger belongs to you.
If you’ve studied almost any subject at the college level, you know that some of the students don’t actually want to be there. They worked hard to be accepted because “everyone goes to college” or “you come from a long line of doctors/lawyers/engineers” or “it’s the best route to a good life.”
They may be feverish over-achievers or they may be failing, but they have one thing in common.
They are fulfilling someone else’s destiny at the cost of their own. The professions are full of unhappily successful practitioners. And it takes real guts first to admit you don’t want this prize that “everybody” says is so great, and second to walk away.
My undergraduate class in medical school harboured many who would rather be somewhere else. A girl consumed by anxiety and driven by expectations to become a third generation physician. A gentle boy who preferred music to science and drank every weekend until he passed out alone in a corner. A boy from a working-class family who was the first in his family to enter university.
Others hid it better. They all said and did the right things, and were praised. They all died a little every day to achieve something they didn’t believe in.
Only the working class boy got out. After the first year, he escaped life sciences for the greater rigour of maths and physics. His parents were distraught, but it saved his life. Others weren’t so lucky.
Be brutally honest with yourself about what you really want.
It’s very easy to fall in with other people’s plans if you have no internal compass or goal of your own. It’s very easy to delude yourself that the prize is something you value.
Sure, college, a life partner, children, a profession, a new car, and one holiday a year are right for some people, some of the time. Now you need to think; are you some people, or are you an individual, living in the world of now and the future rather than the rose-tinted past?
What worked twenty or even ten years ago won’t necessarily work today. You’ll need a map of the current terrain, both interior and exterior. Here’s how to approach that.
A Big Adventure
Map out your future – but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.
You think you want something important? It’s time to test that want to destruction.
Use the 5 Whys
If one of your reasons is “to make X happy or proud” be very careful. Making someone else proud is neither necessary nor sufficient for your happiness. Their pride should be that you are doing what makes you happy. Pause before you sacrifice your happiness. Then do what you must to prioritise it.
Write in your journal
The bigger a goal and the more effort it requires, the more you need to be as sure as you can that it’s right for you. Write about any and every aspect and don’t hold back. That thing you can’t say? Write it down, because the truth lies close to the thoughts you don’t express. It’s safe on a page and you can’t be judged if you keep it secret.
Step into the future
Use a future visualisation exercise to imagine yourself at the goal. How do you feel? If your feeling is immediate dread, a sinking feeling, anxiety, or tightness in your chest, don’t do it – yet. It’s called a gut feeling for a reason, and it’s often more truthful than the justifications we come up with.
Use your head to figure out solutions, or to conclude that you need to look elsewhere. Spend more time refining or changing the goal until it aligns more closely with your true desire.
Find a guide
Ask somebody who’s done what you hope to achieve. Ask them what they wish they’d known when they started and what they enjoy about their journey. Be polite and don’t expect them to solve all your problems. The path you choose is yours to walk. Others can walk beside you but they’re not there to carry you.
Use the negative reality check
Finally, flip the visualisation exercise on its head. Imagine you didn’t achieve your goal. Your life stayed on its current track. Now step into that life five, ten, twenty years from now. What’s your very first impression? That’s the true one. Do you feel disappointed, regretful, angry? Or do you feel relief?
All the rational reasons in the world are nothing compared to how you feel about your goal. Why else would fame, money, and adoration fail to satisfy so many outwardly successful people? They are feeding the wrong appetite, living someone else’s dream while starving themselves of what they deeply desire.
We all have desires. Being satisfied is a matter of making sure that your appetite aligns with the food you choose.
Sometimes you drink water; other times you are thirsty. To be thirsty and to drink water is the perfection of sensuality rarely achieved.
(Originally published in Publishous on 29 March 2019)
What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.
What does it take to succeed in life?
How high is the skills stack you need to make it big?
One thing is for sure. Success is not found by wearing the same outfit, taking cold showers, or reading five hundred pages every day. These habits are correlated with some measures of success, but they don’t cause it.
Your definition of success is bound to vary from mine in the details, but deep down we hold the same desires. Once we satisfy the basic human needs for safety, shelter, and food, as described by Maslow, we look for higher level satisfactions.
The search for companionship in its widest sense, a sense of purpose, and above all autonomy, hide beneath many of our rational and less rational activities. We can dress up our motivations in fancy language if we want to, but it comes down to this.
We want to be safe. We want to belong. We want to matter.
Everything else is froth on the top.
So if everything we do can be stripped down to very simple drivers, what do successful people do that allows them to survive and then thrive in the modern world? I don’t know for sure. But developing as a whole human being, not a lopsided one with all the success in one corner, requires four keystone skills. Work on these, and see how far you grow.
Curiosity Won’t Kill The Cat
I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.
If you’ve ever shared living space with a kitten or a toddler, you know their principal quality is endless curiosity. They explore, get into tight spaces and sometimes even escape without help, over and over. They’re not very much afraid, until they learn to be.
Adulthood squashes your curiosity. If as a child you enjoy nature, books, or music, adults kill your enthusiasm with boring study and assessment. Forced to dissect books and poetry, learn the Linnaeus binomial classification, or study the life of Mozart, younger you learns a hard lesson.
You learn that study is pain, teachers are the judges, and parents aren’t interested in your interests unless they bring in top grades. Then interests become work.
You learn to mind your business and show no joy in anything, lest it be sucked from you as you’re forced to do anything but enjoy yourself. Play isn’t serious and it certainly isn’t preparing you for adult life.
Look again at the quote above. Every one of us comes into the world with that gift of curiosity. We ask questions that have no answers and some that do. But somewhere along the road to adulthood we lose our most precious gift.
Curiosity is an open mind and a sincere smile. The world is as amazing as ever, but you need to open your eyes to see it. Be amazed. Look up at the stars in wonderment, and down at a flower in awe.
People share incredible stories if you ask questions and wait to hear the answer. If you can be open enough to reveal a little of yourself, others are empowered to do the same.
Once, I made a flippant remark about how I’d rather be gardening to the woman sitting next to me in a boring meeting. We got talking and I discovered she was also a passionate gardener. Finally I had someone who understood my struggle, was sympathetic when my Meconopsis died before flowering, and was delighted to visit the Chelsea Flower Show with me.
Curiosity will also help you adapt to changes. Technology has disrupted industries and lives, often for the better. Sometimes it’s difficult to sift out the things that will help you from the mass of options.
Ask yourself simple, child-like questions about new things. What does this do? How do I do X with Y? What if I wanted to do something new, who could show me how?
Whether it’s a new food or a new country, if you attend to the basic need for security, try something different regularly. If you don’t like it, no worries. You have an opinion based on experience and since you’re an adult, you don’t have to do it again.
Curiosity and open-mindedness leads to the next keystone skill.
Feel My Pain, Feel My Joy
Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.
H Jackson Browne
We’re faced daily with the evidence of inhumanity both large and small. Opinions and positions are increasingly polarised, fed by echo chambers that spring up around algorithms showing us more of the same views we already hold. We are more connected but more divided than ever.
Cynicism and numbing of emotions are inevitable when we’re fed a daily diet of sensational news stories and disasters far from home that we have no influence over. Some even advocate a news diet to avoid the distress it causes.
And yet it remains true that humans want the same things. We may name our needs differently, we may take different routes to satisfy them. But mothers want happy secure children, adults want meaning in their lives, and no matter how twisted the expression of these desires they are at heart the same.
Most of us will never hold public office. But in the equally messy politics of our own lives, within our own circle of influence, we can choose to see the other side through a more empathetic lens. We can negotiate for win-win outcomes rather than seek destruction of the opposing side just because it’s the opposing side. After all, the last time someone wronged you the pain didn’t go away, did it? It went underground, festered and grew, until it found another way out.
An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
Instead of raging, take a breath. Consider the possible reasons behind people’s behaviour that may have little to do with you as a person. None of this excuses or forgives wrongdoing, but it gives you the chance not to add to it.
You don’t have to practise random acts of generosity. Being kinder to the people in your life already is a big enough task for most of us, but one which is worthwhile. Hold the door, let someone into traffic, make a drink without being asked. If you’d love it, chances are someone else will.
On the flip side, empathy allows us to share in the joy of others too. There’s no truer friend than the one who can be honestly happy for and with you. Why not be that person for somebody else?
Empathy lets us feel the ties that bind us. We have more in common than we think. We must not give up on ourselves, which leads to the next keystone skill.
Until The End Of The Line
The difference between winning and losing is, most often, not quitting.
There’s a saying that A students end up working for C students. Consider person A, one of the hardest workers in her class. She was never in the top ten percent, and that kept her hungry. She learned at an early age that hard grind would be the key to success.
Compare with person B. Gifted with intelligence, athleticism and charm, he excelled in sports and school almost without trying. But in those last three words were the seeds of his downfall. He struggled in higher education because for the first time it required effort. He never learned how to study and college seemed too much like hard work.
You can guess which person became director at a major brand, successful by their own and society’s standards, and which one has a great future behind them. They are separated not so much by IQ as by perseverance.
Call it grit, perseverance, persistence, bloody mindedness, or whatever you like. Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win. If you give up before the tipping point, you soon find yourself back at the starting line, while others plod on with their eyes fixed on the finish.
If you have grit, the means to keep going, to stick it out, to tolerate not winning until you do, the road to success is open to you. It isn’t easy though it sounds simple; turn up, day after day. Write, train, sell, paint. Put it out there and go again.
Find your own ways to keep going even when you think you’re failing. Try a different approach if your current one isn’t working. If you have a habit of bolting when things get tough, try sitting with the discomfort. Journal it, dissect it, find the fear that sits under the surface.
If you think you’re not good enough, you’re afraid to fail, scared of success, worried about the future, panicking that you can’t do this – then welcome. Everyone feels the same and success doesn’t make that go away. Digest this fact, and get back to work. There are no medals for sitting on the sidelines.
Perseverance is a vital component for the last keystone skill.
The More You Know
Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton
You’re curious, open-minded, able to empathise and relate to others, and have sticking power. That’s great, because you’ll need all these to supercharge the final key skill for survival in the modern world.
Ageing is inevitable, but have you noticed how some people get old really quickly? Their world shrinks, they stop asking questions, and they’re not interested in anything except the pain in their hip and how terrible the kids are these days.
I met many people like this in family practice. Often they were men who had retired without planning their next life stage. Without the structure of work they drifted, annoying their wives and suffering low mood.
When I asked what their hobbies were, or what they did with their days, they were blank. They shook their heads. “Nothing.”
Or they were older women without family ties for various reasons. They had a hundred reasons why they couldn’t join local groups, go to tea dances, try pottery, attend church lunches or knit blankets for charity.
These were people without curiosity and who refused to learn. They had time, but their mindset was fixed. They believed those activities were not for people like them. And so they remained stuck and unhappy, unwilling to leave their very small comfort zones.
To survive and thrive you need teachability – the ability and willingness to learn.
Embrace a growth mindset that welcomes the chance to develop. You’ll need curiosity to find out what might suit you and try it. You’ll need empathy to understand that teaching isn’t easy, and other people are just as worried as you are under their social smile.
You’ll definitely need grit, because everyone sucks in the beginning. And we hate to suck, but it’s unavoidable until we get better. We only get better with practice.
Leaving your comfort zone can feel like being dropped in a distant forest with no map or compass. Think of learning as going to the edge of your map and looking out at unknown but interesting forest nearby.
You still have your home base, which holds all the skills you have already. Now you’re ready to explore, bit by bit, with your teacher or mentor or YouTube video showing the way. Still a bit scary, but not so bad, right?
Learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone.
Don’t overload your brain by going too fast, too soon. Go at your own pace, but keep going. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. That’s humbling, but also inspiring because there’s always more to learn, whether in your own patch or somewhere else.
Rule of Four
Now it’s time for you to apply these rules in your own life.
- Ask more questions and listen to the answer.
- Be kinder and cut people some slack occasionally.
- Stick with things until they bear fruit and don’t give up too easily.
- Learn something new and enlarge your world.
It’s a crazy world but also full of good things, should you choose to notice them. Sometimes, like jewels, magic lies under the surface waiting for someone to dig it out, hold it to the light and make our lives a bit brighter.
(originally published in Publishous on 20 March 2019)
comparison shows you the way
We’re only envious of those already doing what we were made to do. Envy is a giant, flashing arrow pointing us toward our destiny.
How are you doing with your writing?
Are you earning four figures every month and counting thousands of followers? Or are you only reading about those who are?
You know you shouldn’t compare your behind-the-scenes footage with someone else’s highlight reel, but it’s just so easy. Social media sites thrive on peacocks preening under envious glances from the rest of us, selling us their secret sauce along the way. Everyone wants to be a beautiful unicorn, not a plain carthorse plodding through a humdrum life.
Comparison leaves you dissatisfied and unsettled. Far from being a motivating force, it saps the very energy you need to move forward – because you’re number one or you’re nowhere. As Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Me Me Me
You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
You’ve probably done this. You look at X who has something you don’t. You feel envious because you deserve that thing, angry because they don’t deserve it, or ashamed of your lack.
Notice that all these emotions point back at you. X is out there doing what they do, and you’re beating yourself up over it. Comparison is a thief. It steals your peace of mind and uses your own energy to do it.
None of this helps you to feel better, or achieve more in your own life. Worse still, when you think about it you’ll see that X is unaffected by all your angst. You are both the author and the sole beneficiary of this bad blood.
You can redirect that energy for your own good.
Envy is a magic mirror that shows your true desires. If you think you don’t know what you want, use envy. What makes you angry when other people have it? What object or activity cuts so deep that you have to cover up the pain with sarcasm or sweetness, otherwise you’d scream?
That. That’s what you want.
And you can go for it, because other people are paying very little attention to you. The spotlight effect makes you feel as if you’re the centre of attention, but others are as consumed by their inner dialogue as you are by yours. Even when they scrutinise you, that critical gaze is really a projection of their own self-talk. Just like when you watch unicorns and covet their rainbow manes.
But consider this – what if you could be a unicorn?
Fuelled By Envy
Find out who you are and do it on purpose.
I’m no writing superstar. I write and publish, and sometimes get discouraged. I have to remind myself to keep going even if there’s no immediate payoff, and to take pride in my achievements even when it feels like I’m failing.
Because one truth lies at the heart of my work – I’m a writer and that’s what I do, good days and bad, fair weather or foul. Still… good days are more than welcome. It’s been a grind recently, for numerous reasons.
A writing group friend came up to me last week and said, “I read your articles and I’m amazed you’re able to write so much.”
He went on to say that he’d been sitting on a story for a long time. Inspired by Medium, he committed to writing one hundred words a day, and he was delighted to have a forty-five day streak under his belt.
This struck me for two reasons. First, I’d been beating myself up for not writing enough; and second because that’s how I started my serious writing journey. I read Shaunta Grimes and took on board her teeny tiny goals. I kept going, and now I’m here.
Maybe you’re not at the goal yet. But perception is relative. The top of the mountain is shrouded in cloud, but you are a speck in the distance to somebody who’s just left the starting blocks. Maybe you’re even an inspiration to them. Rather than envy, they recognise a kinship which motivates them to go on. If you did it, so can they.
Wherever you are, you’re further on than the person who didn’t start yet, further on than you were. The only useful comparison is with your past self. Make sure you’re pulling away from your previous position.
Then you’ll find the unicorns are people like you. Yes, they ran faster and/or started before you, but they all began where you did – at the starting post. They’re on their path, and you are on yours, but remember that there’s room at the top for everyone who works for it.
So keep going. Be inspired by those ahead of you, and an inspiration for those behind.
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Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
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.
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?
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
You’ve probably read that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, or you might lean towards the idea that it’s more dispersed than that. There’s definitely some influence, whether larger or smaller.
Imagine you’ve moved on. You don’t want to gossip over lunch or complain about your boss or otherwise play small anymore. But your colleagues are the same. You can’t change them. Habits are triggered by cues, so you decide to work out at lunchtime instead of going to the break room to whine. Which is great for your abs, but you just lost your social group at work.
Some self-improvement writers present this social drift as a virtuous circle. The more they improve themselves, the less they have in common with previous friends. So they find new, better ones more suited to their higher vibration. Which makes them even better, and so on.
That can come across as rather shallow and self-serving. Some relationships are temporary, but if you treat everyone as disposable you’ll never make lasting connections. Plus you risk finding yourself out of the circle once they move on, again. If you find it difficult to make new friends, discarding those you have has little appeal.
So can you change without giving up all your relationships and risking society’s scorn?
The Same But Different
People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.
Stephen R. Covey
Most people don’t want to sell all their possessions and go meditate in a cave in search of personal growth. Maybe you don’t have to reconnect with your first love on Facebook and leave your husband and children behind to find happiness in life.
You want to live a truer version of yourself, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Self-improvement is Michelangelo carefully cutting away all that’s inessential to reveal the glory of his David. It’s about finding the core of your self by discarding what no longer works and then living in accordance with your truth.
Change is evolution, not revolution.
Taking tiny steps and testing the waters is less daunting and likely to be more successful than a wholesale revision.
- 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.