recognise and remove internal and external roadblocks to success
You can’t always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.
We all want to succeed. When success doesn’t come, we tell ourselves stories about why that might be.
- I’m unlucky.
- The timing isn’t right.
- Other people have better connections.
- People like me who are ______ just don’t win.
- The market is overcrowded.
Most of these excuses are false. And you know it. Humans are really good at rationalising their failures and placing the blame elsewhere.
Whether you bottle it up or act it out, are you keeping yourself from the things you say you want?
Doubt Is The Only Certainty
Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.
There’s something you want, but you doubt your ability to get it. Deep down, you don’t think you deserve it. Seeing someone else with what you want makes you envious, so you become hypercritical of yourself or that person, which both lead to bitterness and anger.
Criticism and envy are signposts to what you really want. Figure out precisely what that is, and you’re well on the way to getting it.
Success looks very different to each of us. If you envy the writer with a number one bestseller, what element of their success annoys you most? It could be critical acclaim, financial security, freedom to write all day rather than be employed, or even the fact that they look so damn happy in their photos. Why can’t you have that?
Use that feeling. You can have what they have if you master your self-doubt.
A certain amount of doubt is healthy but too much is paralysing. Start with your definition of success and make a plan to get there. Don’t let doubt stop you. It’s time to act.
He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.
Shannon L. Alder
Do you order the same food from the same restaurant every time?
Do you try that new restaurant you drove past yesterday, or do you only visit places that others have given at least a 4.8 review rating?
Risk aversion keeps you locked in place ruminating over all the ways things can go wrong if you change. You follow the herd, even if the herd isn’t going your way.
Moving towards your dreams always entails risk. It might be more difficult than you thought. You might not make it. It might not look as good from the inside.
But what’s the alternative?
The only way you’ll know where your limits are is to push yourself further. You can’t reach a new level without taking a chance that you might fail. Don’t discount the possibility that you might succeed.
Focus on the chance of success and accept that you’ll probably have to try more than once. Failing forward is tough, but taking each failure as a lesson helps you build the resilience and feedback you need.
As Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Adjust your aim and keep swinging.
Stuck In A Rut
We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
It’s often said that change is the only constant in life. We can only navigate a hugely complex world by filtering, simplifying and making mental models.Even though we’re hard-wired to prefer novelty, we also resist change because of the strain it puts on our mental bandwidth. Add to that fear of the unknown, and we retreat into the familiar safety of the comfort zone.
Resisting change eats away at you because repressing emotion consumes more energy than expressing it. Imagine you’re punching something. Now imagine you pull that punch at the last minute. You use energy for forward motion and more energy for an equal reverse motion. Not only that, but denying the punch leads to anger and resentment because you don’t get the release you need.
All that energy expended, yet you’re stuck in the same rut, settling for less. It’s exhausting.
You know you need a change when you’re bored repeating the same routine, when you’ve stopped learning, when there’s less and less reward in your activities.
You also know when a situation is bad for you and you need to change it or leave.
When you’ve poured a great deal of time and energy into a job or relationship, change can feel like a waste of your investment. This sunk cost fallacy stops you from cutting your losses and leads to inertia, staying with something that has no hope of improvement. What is right for one time and place may not be right forever.
Face that growing feeling of discontent head on. Use your journal to uncover its source or talk it out with someone. Identifying the source is the first step to deciding what changes you need to make, and they may not be as extensive as you fear.
Unresolved conflict between what you have and what you want often transforms into anger that is directed towards the self in anxiety and low mood, or outwards into hostility and envy.
Find the courage to confront the possibility of change so that you control the process.
Busy Doing Nothing
We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.
I expect you’re a busy person, like everyone these days. But are you doing the things that matter even if they’re difficult, or giving in to distraction?
If you find yourself down a rabbit hole of Youtube videos after looking up a simple fact online, you’re not alone. But the resulting guilt and shame can be enough to derail you from your actual work. Procrastination can wear many faces, including filling your time with “worthy” activities like reading or research or reorganising the kitchen cupboards.
It’s not enough to be busy. You need to be productive, not merely occupied. Getting clear on the day’s priorities is the first step, and an ordered schedule will help you achieve that. Each Sunday, spend thirty minutes with your planner and set aside time in the coming week for must-do and want-to-do tasks.
Knowing what to do and when gets around having fifty things you could be doing bouncing around your head, but being unable to pick one and therefore doing none of them.
Like eating your broccoli before dessert, must-do items come first. If you’re a rewards person, finish the task before you have your cookie, ten minutes of social media or whatever.
If you’re prone to distraction, minimise it. Use one of many stripped down desktop apps so you focus. Leave your phone in another room. Research has shown that even if it is silenced, your smartphone still pulls your attention.
Can’t bear to get started? Does the task feel overwhelming? Use the Pomodoro technique to break it into ten or fifteen-minute chunks. If a task fills you with dread, get it out of the way and eat the frog first. Everything else will be easier by comparison.
Get on task, stay on task, and accomplish more with your time.
The Truth Is Out There
One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.
You probably know someone who likes to consider their options carefully. They gather information, take opinions, and always think twice. They feel safer when they have more evidence.
Then there are people who make choices based on their feelings about them, good or bad. Often they are highly intuitive. Journaling becomes a sacred rite as they dig deeper and deeper into emotions.
Too much analysis leads to paralysis. Too much thinking about feelings is another route to procrastination. Faced with an overload of emotion, you might manage it by repression, distraction, or numbing. In any case, you get nothing done.
Deep thinking is a good thing — as long as it leads to action. At some point, you have to declare the thinking phase complete, draw up a shortlist of options, and then choose one.
A list of pros and cons is the simplest tool, and the act of writing them down clarifies your thoughts.
A simple scoring system can help you prioritise different options. For example, when buying a house, I had a list of essentials like location, number of bedrooms, and living space. The second list was for desirables like south facing and size of the garden. By allocating one to three points for each essential and one point for each desirable, I was able to compare houses with different features more easily.
If a house missed any essentials it was out of the running, no matter how lovely. Scoring helps to take some of the emotion from the equation, especially for big decisions. Making your lists forces you to be more objective, but there’s nothing to stop you allocating your points in any way that feels right.
If you’re considering a major decision like a job change or relocation, try visualisation. Imagine yourself in a future where you’ve stayed unchanged and not followed through. Do you feel regret or disappointment? That’s a clue that this change could be right for you.
Of course, you can’t see the future, but you can use a combination of techniques to make the best decision you can. Emotion allied to objectivity gives you the best of both worlds.
Get Out Of Your Own Way
Self-sabotage is when we say we want something and then go about making sure it doesn’t happen.
Your inner roadblocks are expressed in different behaviours.
- self-doubt — envy
- risk aversion — following the herd
- resisting change — settling for less
- lack of discipline — procrastination
- overthinking — distraction/numbing
You might recognise yourself in any or all of the scenarios above. We’re only human and none of us is perfect, but naming the obstacle is the first step to overcoming it. Outer behaviours always reflect inner thinking, so mastering your internal dialogue will improve your chances of success.
Make better decisions, accept the risk of failure and do it anyway, and follow through with action.
How to make small talk less of a big deal
The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
George Bernard Shaw
Imagine you’re going to a party. You know the host and a couple of other guests. There will be drinks. There will be small talk.
Are you excited to meet all those new people? Or are you shrinking away in horror and already thinking about faking peritonitis to get out of it?
You’re not alone.
There are two kinds of people in this world. The first go by the Irish principle of strangers being friends they haven’t met yet. And the second live by Sartre’s principle that hell is other people. Unfortunately for the latter, they also have to socialise at least occasionally.
Good conversation is like a well-paced game of tennis, neither too fast to return serve, nor failing to return and letting the ball drop. Here are ten tips to help you raise your game, whichever camp you’re in.
1. Assume rapport
Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.
If you struggle with talking to strangers, approach them as though they’re someone you know. Assume you already have a friendly connection. Drop your shoulders, breathe out, offer a smile or a brief but firm handshake as appropriate. Odds are they feel the same about you, and you’re not intimidating, are you?
2. Listen more
We have two ears and one tongue that we might listen more and talk less.
Most people wait until the other stops speaking and then weigh in with their own observations. Active listening is a technique that aims to ensure the speaker feels heard. And since most people want to talk about themselves, they will think you’re great if you let them. Listen, acknowledge by gestures such as nodding, and then summarise what they said before responding. Try, “So what you’re saying is…”
3. Avoid interrogation
The primary use of conversation is to satisfy the impulse to talk.
A rapid-fire series of questions isn’t just hard to respond to, but can come across as aggressive. Relax and let them answer one question at a time. Remember you’re meant to be listening, and if your questions come in a constant stream you aren’t really listening or responding.
4. Don’t choke
That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it’s worth making the effort.
It’s easy to mock small talk about the weather, the game, or property prices, but they’re safe and universal subjects to get things started. You might fear you have nothing to say, but there’s always something. Look at the local newspaper or trade magazine before you arrive to see what the hot topics are. If you don’t watch the current big thing on TV, have something else to talk about in books or movies.
5. There’s an art to delivery
It’s the way I tell ’em.
We draw a great deal of meaning from the way speech is delivered. Practice a stance you’re comfortable with and avoid closed body language. The words are often less important than tone, speed, and clarity of speech.
Breathe evenly. Adjust your volume to match the room. Speaking too fast will lose your listener, and too slow will bore them. Keep your point in mind so that you don’t meander and lose the thread of your statement.
Some people are effortlessly funny, some are unintentionally funny, and then there’s the rest of us. Comedians are masters of timing, but even they practise their material in low stakes situations before headlining their national tour. Avoid telling jokes unless you’re confident, but laugh at them whenever possible.
6. No monologues
A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.
Even if you’re the most knowledgeable person on the topic being discussed, avoid monopolising the conversation. You don’t know what other people know and you risk coming over as arrogant. Remember that conversation is a game in which both parties speak and listen. If you hold forth, you’re lecturing and people’s eyes will glaze over. We’ve all been trapped by the single subject bore. Don’t be that person.
7. No open combat
Conversation isn’t about proving a point; true conversation is about going on a journey with the people you are speaking with.
Conversation is not a full-contact sport. Rein in the need to be right all the time and keep away from arguments. If someone tries to pick a fight with you, decline. Move away, feign ignorance, or change the subject. Social gatherings are rarely a good setting in which to confront people. If you think you’re superior to other people, keep it to yourself and consider you’re probably wrong.
8. Steer away from controversy
The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
In a mixed gathering, there will be a range of opinions on any subject. Deeply held convictions are not going to change over the canapes, and that includes yours. One of the great joys of life is discussing deeper issues, but reserve that for the right audience. Avoid politics, religion, and any charged subject from the news.
If you’re faced with someone espousing views you’re absolutely opposed to, you have the right to move on. Don’t put up with unnecessary discomfort. Socialising is hard enough.
9. Practise emotional intelligence
Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.
Be aware of the person you’re talking with. Do they show signs of interest with open body language? Are they oriented towards you, the exit, or someone else? One of the worst sins is constantly scanning the room for the next mark. This makes the other person feel ignored and insignificant. If you see someone else you want to speak with, finish your conversation and excuse yourself politely.
Know when a conversation has ended and try to move on with grace. Pay attention to cues.
On the other hand, if you do connect with someone, ask open questions and listen. If you want them to say a bit more, try waiting combined with encouraging actions such as smiling or nodding. Often people will respond again to fill the silence. If not, offer something of your own. The best conversations happen when both people are relaxed and willing to reveal something true about themselves.
10. Know your limits
Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas…many have a horror of small talk but enjoy deep discussions.
Extroverts are energised by social contact, whereas introverts are drained by it. Both need other people to varying extents. If you’re introverted, plan accordingly. Watch your energy levels and leave before you’re exhausted. Accept that you’ll need a period of withdrawal to recharge and work it into your schedule as a priority.
Don’t Sweat The Small Talk
Brave the introductions and small talk, and introverts have a chance to find a kindred spirit who’s happy to chat in a quiet corner while the extroverts work the room. If you’re lucky enough to go with a more outgoing partner or friend, that might offer the perfect cover. You’ll still have to drag them away at the end though.
Treat small talk as a starter for ten rather than a trial. Life is all about making connections and that means being comfortable with social situations, whether you prefer talking or listening.
You can’t get to the deep without first going through the shallows.
(first published by Publishous on Medium 8 June 2019)
Have a comment? Drop it below and start a conversation.
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.
the counterintuitive power of a supposedly negative emotion
Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.
Are you afraid of your anger?
Perhaps you’re like Bruce Banner, hiding behind a mild mannered facade that conceals constant rage. You live in fear of what anger might do, fear of unleashing it, and fear of the consequences.
In real life, expressing anger leads to loss. You can lose relationships, health, possessions and in some cases your liberty by getting angry with the wrong person at the wrong time.
So that makes anger a bad thing, right?
More Than A Feeling
Feelings are something you have; not something you are.
Shannon L. Alder
We can’t escape anger. But maybe you’re shaking your head now because I’m wrong about you. You don’t get angry because it’s unproductive, destructive and just not nice.
Do you get irritated? Are the people around you consistently disappointing? Irritation and frustration are anger with the volume turned down.
Do particular situations that don’t directly involve you trigger a desire to call out injustice and unacceptable behaviour in others? Moral outrage can be a proxy for real anger with its roots elsewhere.
Are you a perfectionist, hypercritical of yourself, and need to control even small aspects of your environment? This combination of internally directed anger and fear hides under a veneer of achievement and desire for approval.
Last of all, are you always nice to everyone, in any situation? Do you apologise when someone wrongs you? People who bury their feelings under niceness and socially sanctioned compliance are often angriest of all.
Everybody’s angry at least some of the time. Why is this a useful response?
Anger helps you survive because it motivates you to approach a threat and overcome it.
When some guy cuts you off in traffic, you feel a threat to your territory — your vehicle and its surrounding space. You’re enraged and you’re ready to get out and fight.
By contrast, fear motivates you to avoid a threat to survival. If that same guy is driving an eighteen-wheeler, survival instinct tells you that fighting him for the same road space is unwise. But unexpressed anger doesn’t necessarily go away. You hold it in your body and mind.
When your child spills his drink later, you shout because your head hurts and you have heartburn and is it so hard to just use a cup? Now you’re both angry with yourself and guilty, and you reach for your numbing agent of choice.
Emotions are not of themselves good or bad. You have emotions, and your choices in dealing with them have more or less value. There are ways to make anger work for you.
Count To Ten?
When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.
Anger is processed very fast in the amygdala, part of the brain that deals with identifying and responding to threats. The cortex, seat of rational thinking, takes longer to catch up. This is the reason behind the advice to count to five or ten, giving yourself time to think of an acceptable response.
Anger triggers an alert state, with stress hormones flooding the system. Heart rate and breathing increase, muscles tense, and the body gets ready to fight. You can learn to tune in to these reactions before your anger escalates too far. Long, slow exhales help to limit the effects of adrenaline. This is essential; otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of emotions and unable to make a considered move.
If you live or work in an environment where anger is often expressed, you know that getting angry doesn’t help the situation. But sometimes anger escapes before you can direct it.
I once had a patient whose spouse had left him and their young children. He worked hard to care for them but had to sacrifice much of his previous lifestyle to do so. We spent time unpicking his many symptoms, which required various referrals and treatments so that he could keep going.
One day he came to discuss his progress. He said nobody was listening and he felt uncared for. This wasn’t so uncommon. Normally I’d listen, give him space to vent, and then formulate a plan.
That didn’t happen.
It was like a switch was flipped. Instead of empathising, I challenged him directly. We remained civil — we’re British after all — but ended without resolving either position. He never returned to see me.
I was already tired and running on empty for a variety of reasons, but I thought my emotions were under control in a professional setting. Turns out that if someone hits where it hurts by implying you don’t care so you’re not doing a good job so you’re not a good person then knee-jerk responses can outrun the best training.
When you’re already carrying a stress load, your trigger point is much lower. You might need to walk away from or avoid situations that you know will be difficult to manage. If that’s not possible, at least you can recognise your shorter fuse and be ready to count to twenty if needed.
Take a time-out if needed. Defer the conversation to a later time. Be self -aware and respectful of the other person, so that you can broker an acceptable resolution.
Afterwards find a trusted person to debrief with, or write a journal entry. Go over the events, be honest about what happened and own your choices. Treat it as a learning opportunity and plan a better course of action next time.
Most of all, resist the impulse to turn the anger on yourself without resolving it. That will eat you from the inside.
Anger motivates action, so choose your action. And if your previous actions hurt someone, apologise sincerely, forgive yourself, and move on.
Don’t let anger rule your life; there is a better way forward.
A Call To Action
Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
So you recognised your anger for what it is and learned to control your first impulse to attack. What comes next?
Controlling your anger is not the same as denying or repressing it. In fact James Gross has shown that trying to suppress anger makes you feel worse .
Think of it as an energy source; a laser that can be focused with great effect. Hold that energy and take aim.
Start with the physical. Your body has been wound up to deal with a threat. Work through the adrenaline flooding your system by running, lifting weights, or digging the garden. Exercise is a healthy response and the answers to fix the original problem may well come to you on that fast walk around the block.
I use my angry energy to do domestic chores that I hate. Afterwards I have a clean house and my muscles can relax. The negative encounter and all the thoughts following are converted into tangible benefits, which is a win-win situation.
If your anger is prompted by injustice for others do something to help, however small. Give time or money, or speak out. Take your anger and turn it into something real and useful.
If it’s a person or a situation in your life, talk it over with a third party to see what your options are. Trying to organise change in the white heat of anger will lead to questionable decisions. The other person can also dismiss your reasonable grievances as mere emotion — which will enrage you even more. Figure out what exactly makes you angry and only then seek the solutions.
Some people will goad you to snap so that they remain in control. Family members especially can be adept at button-pushing. Do not give them that advantage. Know your trigger points and plan how you will respond in advance. Instead of having the same argument over and over, change the script. Remember that the only actions you can control are your own.
If you’re angered by being put down or treated as insignificant, redirect the energy. Use it to work on your weaknesses and enhance your strengths. Spite and the desire to prove someone wrong has propelled many success stories.
If your anger is internal, driven by poor self-esteem, shame, or lack of belonging, these need careful handling. Facing the truth about your feelings can be the hardest of all. Think back to your last bout of anger. Dissect your feelings using the 5 Whys technique and a journal. Name the pain before you can cure it, with or without external help.
If you’re too nice with undefended boundaries, learn how to say no. The energy you save by not feeling resentful can be used for something better — like your own ambitions.
If you’re angry all the time, for trivial reasons, understand this is a symptom of something deeper. Strain in your relationships is a warning that change is urgently needed. Take responsibility both for your chosen actions and the results. Nobody makes you react in a particular way. It is always your choice to give in to your initial impulse.
Seek ways to manage your anger and work on your stresses. As Marcus Aurelius said, the consequences of anger are much worse than their causes. The ability to keep your cool is an advantage in many situations.
Win Your Cool
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
Anger carries the energy of a coiled spring. Holding it in requires more energy than letting go, but you need to handle its release with intention so it doesn’t blow up in your face. This is neither simple nor easy, but learning self-control has a tremendous pay-off in mastering your emotions.
Hardwired into every one of us, anger is neither hero nor villain. It’s a call to action which, when properly managed, can be turned from indiscriminate bomb into a targeted weapon for change. Temper your anger with clear thinking so you can focus it with precision.
Know your anger, embrace it — but not too tightly — and use its power for good.
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.
giving is good – taking is great
Give without remembering and receive without forgetting.
Would you rather give something or get something?
You’ve heard that it’s better to give than to receive. The idea of giving is central to most religions around the world. Winston Churchill supposedly said “you make a living by what you give, but you make a life by what you give.”
If you’re the lucky recipient of a gift, how do you receive it? Get it wrong, and the whole exchange is soured.
You’d think it was easy, but gift giving is often a fraught affair, hedged round with expectations and social norms. Some people don’t know how to give; others never learn to give. Even when we’re following that golden rule, it can still fail.
During a writing group meeting, I once complimented a writer on her dialogue, which flowed on the page with the polished elegance that comes from a finely tuned ear. She smiled uncertainly and protested that it wasn’t that good – at all.
So we both felt bad. She felt undeserving of something good, and I felt as though she had thrown my words away. What made her react like that?
Given But Not Taken
Gracious acceptance is an art – an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving…. Accepting another person’s gift is allowing him to express his feelings for you.
Alexander McCall Smith
I’m certain that my writer friend would never throw a physical gift on the ground and walk away. But in refusing to accept the intangible gift of praise, she essentially did just that.
When parents and caregivers teach us to be polite, they leave out the most important skill in receiving. Politeness hides many a scowl of anger and disappointment, and its lack of authenticity is obvious even when cloaked in smiles and happy words.
The art of receiving a genuine gift (or even a fake one) is in understanding that when a gift is given it must also be taken. Both sides are necessary.
Learn to give without strings. A gift with conditions is at best a loan of something the giver still controls.
The art of receiving a gift is first in feeling worthy enough to be given something, and second in expressing genuine gratitude.
When given a compliment, are you:
- embarrassed because you don’t deserve praise,
- suspicious of their motives because they must want something from you, or
- angry because they’re clearly mocking you?
These emotions have their roots in old programming and/or traumatic events that you’re holding on to in the present.
Think back to the last such encounter and examine your feelings. There’s often an old memory attached that still shapes your behaviour in the present. Perhaps you were taught that taking things was selfish, accepting praise was a sin of pride, or simply that compliments weren’t for people like you.
To rewrite this script, here is one thing you need to accept about yourself.
You are worthy.
You are good enough, so is your work, and you deserve the rewards you receive. Whether it’s a yummy cupcake, a well-written report, or a project delivered on budget and on time. So accept that compliment. If you refuse it either outright or by deflection, you hurt both parties.
As interactions become more transactional and less genuine, dysfunctional gifting can be seen as a microcosm of a wider problem. When your gift is covertly rejected, you become cynical. There seems no point in giving, so you restrict yourself to exchanges that directly benefit you in some tangible way. When you refuse a gift, you replay an old script that says you are unworthy. You add to your burden of self-doubt.
The donor is hurt because rejection robs them of the pleasure of giving. You hurt yourself because you reinforce old lies that whisper you shouldn’t have nice things. And an exchange that could start to heal those wounds is wasted.
Take The Box
After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling under-appreciated while simultaneously refusing credit where it’s due. Hidden under the guise of humility or self-deprecation, this form of self-sabotage eats away at self-esteem unseen. It’s time to find a better way.
Next time someone says something good about you, remember you’re being offered a gift. Don’t walk away or bad-mouth it. You know how you’d like your gift to be received. Make eye contact, smile and thank the giver sincerely. There’s no need to explain more. Don’t follow up with how hard you found it, or minimise your efforts. Don’t give away the gift by saying anyone could have done it.
There is no giving without taking. They complement and define each other.
Stay in the moment and acknowledge the gift. When you do that, you honour both the giver and receiver. That’s the gift you give back.
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)