Your discomfort zone (version 2) 

As the saying goes, if you keep doing what you did, you keep getting what you got. The way we progress is by doing differently. Differently can mean a more uncomfortable version of what you are already doing, or something entirely new. Either way it’s not what we’re inclined to do or else we would be doing it already.

It takes mental effort to put yourself in a place of discomfort, and more to stay there. When I think of this, threshold training comes to mind. A former running coach summed it up quite well: 

“… you know that feeling you have when you get to that running pace where it stops being comfortable, but you’re not throwing up; you can live with it but given a choice you wouldn’t choose to – you’re kind of at the ‘point of yuck’ – that’s your anaerobic threshold. That’s what you’re looking for. Just hold that pace.”

There you go then. Just find that point of yuck and live with it. I can say from experience that the longer you live with it, the less uncomfortable it becomes. It’s just not a natural state, and you can’t live with it all the time. For those other times I recommend whatever hedonistic joy takes your fancy. After living at the point of yuck, I guess you could call this embracing the state of yum. 


Your discomfort zone (version 1)

Last year I took improv classes.  There I was, my British restraint cast aside, and I’m yelling, laughing, and loving the troop with whom I found myself.  Free from judgment, and where the prime directive is to support your partner, it’s a place of safety. But despite that nurturing environment, the instincts remain.

One Thursday evening I was quite happy producing (admittedly poor) Scottish, Irish, French, and South African accents, but as soon as I was called on to produce an American one, I clammed up; suddenly I had 15 experts who’d judge me!

Their attitude was nothing but supportive. Indeed their response when I finally caved was similar to that of my friend, Geoff, at karaoke. Namely that it’s not about being good, instead it’s about having fun, having a go, and letting go. 

One of my favourite sayings about friendship is that a friend is someone who knows you and yet still loves you. When in their company they provide a little papoose of comfort and safety.

Getting older also helps dissolve those deeply rooted fears of being judged, because the older I get the less I care. I wish I had been older when I was younger. 

The importance of owning stuff 

We come into this world with nothing. We leave with nothing, and yet we spend so much time and energy acquiring things.

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, you can hear from descendants of the Wampanoag – the native American tribe without whom the Mayflower Pilgrims might have perished. The pilgrims arrived with a their very Anglo Saxon concept of land ownership and the Wampanog must have wondered why these Europeans wanted to give them things. 

If someone came up to you and told you they wanted to give you money for an experience you had last year you might say think they were crazy but you would thank them for their generosity and tell them to knock themselves out. How then would you then react when you suddenly needed to call on that experience, only to find it had disappeared from your memory?

The concept of owning is not a genetic imperative. Another need comes first: survival, food, shelter, providing for those you love. Owning things allows you to meet those other needs but at some point the stuff itself becomes the need: more land, more clothes, more gadgets and toys… or if you’re a cyclist, more bikes.  Time with loved ones diminishes in importance, and you waste time and energy on things that shouldn’t matter. (Happiness and health do matter. )

I live in a country where there is a strong drive to acquire stuff, especially if it’s free (and shiny). Yet the joy is ephemeral.  

No lecture here. Just some morning thoughts as I realise I did grab the airline goodie box from my flight last week, because it was free – and shiny – even though it’s full of things I don’t need. This posting is also an opportunity to finish off with the genius that is George Carlin, and share with you his thoughts on stuff.

… as long as we don’t talk politics

“What do we want? More of the same! When do we want it? WHENEVER… WE’RE NOT THAT BOTHERED!”
How often do we turn on the TV to see protestors with placards saying that?

The status quo does not galvanize people into action (unless we’re talking about the rock band, who opened Live Aid in London in 1985).

When people do hold a stance opposing my own my natural inclination is to push back or shut down / run away; we have a fight or flight response. The more passionately I feel about something – the U.S. presidential election, Brexit, gun ownership – the stronger my reaction, but there is a third way, and it’s something we find at the heart of the martial art, Aikido.

In Aikido, you have a partner rather than an opponent whom you disarm rather than dismember. That disarming commonly begins by manouevring yourself until you’re aligned with them or by manoeuvring them until they are aligned with you: their stance becomes yours, their point of view becomes yours… you even take their hand (wrist).

Exponents of this martial art might point out that the analogy breaks  down after this point because you can then proceed by slapping them to the mat like a bitching sack of spuds (but you would only delight in doing this if you’re a dick or an arsehole).

By taking a step to the side rather than forwards or backwards, by standing with them, by seeing from their perspective and by taking their hand, confrontation and opposition has disapperared.

We need to do this outside of a dojo. We need to do this so often that the Aikido way becomes instinctive and our lizard brain’s fight or flight response recedes.

Let have a stab (as it were) with the three topics I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“I recognize that Republicans have a reputation of being fiscally prudent but I feel the same way about Democrats. And yet I was reading that every president, regardless of party, has left the country with a debt level greater than when they came into office. What are your thoughts?”

“I agree with you that the EU is a bloated  bureaucracy that seems to be indiscriminately pressing people down a path of harmonization without respecting their individuality or that of their sovreign nation. I also think it’s easier to change things from within than without. Mainland Europe will always be our neigbour, and I think what the EU does will affect us whether we’re in the club or not. How do we move forward in concert with them?”

“It feels like crime is rising and that there are more and more mass shootings. I don’t know the answer but I think that if more guns is the answer then the USA would be the most crime free nation on planet. How do we protect our own children without increasing the risk of someone else’s dying?”

And so when certain friends and family members next come to dinner, DO talk politics, DO talk religion. We will never come together if we sit holed up in our own own view of the world, ready to hide from or attack anyone that sits outside it. And if it helps, show them the Aikido way.

In support of our competitors

You’ve decided to take part in some nustso challenge and it’s not easy. Someone you don’t know draws alongside you and more often than not you demonstrate support for one another: a friendly word, a smile, etc. Two strangers want each other to do as well as they can.  Even top marathon runners – people who are going for a win –  are known to help newbies… during a race! How do we cultivate this attitude amongst the business community?

The majority of businesses see a finite (or even shrinking) market and treat it as a zero sum game, stealing from one another. This approach leads to an decreasing number of competitors. Dominant players game the landscape, block new entrants, and lobby the rule makers to skew things in their favour.

We can tell the good businesses apart because they don’t cannibalise one another, instead they provide something new, or for someone new. We can tell the great people apart because they support one another, always trying to improve, to grow, to serve.

I guess I’m looking for the business equivalent of a grand unified theory; one which brings capitalism, socialism, government and private enterprise together in a way that stabilises markets,  closes the gap between rich and poor, looks after an ageing population, and provides a sense of self-determination and purpose in an era of increasing automation. 

Easy peasy then; I’ll get right on that. But until I do, I will probably go on a few more nutso challenges so that I am reminded of how business might be. 

Never give up… quitting

I grew up in the U.K., currently live in the U.S., and the differences between these countries fascinates me. One difference that strikes a chord is in the attitude to persistence and giving up.

In the U.S. self-gurus aplenty advocate the importance of staying power: “never give up”, “it’s just when most people quit that things change for the better”, “winners never quit and quitters never win”, etc. I know many who subscribe to this mindset, push through their pain… and end up with a longer term injury than if they had ‘given up’. Giving up isn’t bad, just as failure isn’t bad, not if you see it in the right light.

The drive to never give up is also strong in the U.K. I know this because we grow up with the words of Winston Churchill ringing in our ears:

Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

Sir Winston Churchill (29 October 1941, to the boys at Harrow School)

And so the difference is not in the importance, or value, or commitment to persistence but rather the mindset around it. The U.S. vibe around persistence feels more like  an irresistible force, and in the U.K. it feels more like the immovable object. Maybe that’s a byproduct of our respective size and power.

Whether you’re force or object, it’s when we take a binary approach to giving up that we get into trouble. It’s not that simple.

  • If you are running a marathon and you have a searing, shooting pain going through your leg, you’re not weak to stop, you’re smart.
  • If you are in a job that makes you miserable, you’re not weak to leave, you are prioritizing long term happiness and personal effectiveness over some irrelevant and incorrect attitude to failure.
  • When events change, or when new information comes to you, it’s ok to change your mind. In fact you absolutely SHOULD reassess your situation.

This is what I’m left with:

Be bloody-minded in the pursuit of your dreams and values, but be like water when finding your path to realize them. If water hits a massive boulder it goes sideways, or even backwards, until it can find a new way forward.

Be water, my friend

Bruce Lee


Why I hope things go wrong (just a little bit)

Do you ever hope things go just a little bit wrong sometimes? I think our desire for an easy time, the perfect ceremony, good weather, etc. mean we miss out on something far more important.

When I look back at those events that stick in my memory, those that helped shaped me, or those for which I hold the greatest affection, it’s when things didn’t go quite as planned:

  • That time when I was unexpectedly homeless… and found a cascade of lifelong friends as a result. 
  • That time when I didn’t pass the exams I needed… and the subsequent self-examination  led me down a path more conguent with my natural inclinations.
  • That time when the whole family was stuck in the tunnel on the way to Logan airport, for over two hours… and we still talk about the “Boston Bladder Dash (with no battery left for GPS)” when we all gather for high days and holidays.

And so as we head into 2018, I hope things go just wrong enough for you. 

  • At new year, I hope you miss your party… and meet an amazing stranger.
  • If you’re getting married… I hope a very drunk great uncle Hugo falls into your cake so that you have laughs for life. 
  • If you set yourself yet another stretch goal, I hope your efforts end in glorious failure…  in such a way that you’re reminded doing things simply because you love doing them is also a worthwhile use of one’s time. 

May all our 2018s be perfectly imperfect.

It’s the gremlins and dolphins

At this time of year our thoughts often turn to new year’s resolutions and improving our health.  I’ve been reading up on exercise and weight loss on the interweb and there is more going on than you might think. 

Did you know, for example, that your body releases gremlins, and research suggests gremlins are one of the things that make us want to eat. We can stop gremlins by eating grains and protein. (Apparently it also helps if we get out in the sunshine and avoid eating after midnight. ) Best of all to keep the little critters at bay is if we get a good night’s sleep; the interweb proves all of this. 

Did you also know that when you exercise, your body releases dolphins into your bloodstream. Dolphins make you happy, and that’s why many who exercise have a smile on their face when they exercise because we like dolphins and because dolphins are always smiling. (To free the most dolphins try feeling a sense of exertion, but no need to get annihilated; a sustained brisk walk is better than a recumbent bike with reading material.)

So there you go: eat properly and not too close to sleep, get enough sleep and exercise frequently, preferably outdoors. Stop the gremlins and free the dolphins!

I create, therefore I am

I’ve always been contrary. At school I was told I was no good at chemistry; it ended up being my strongest subject… and I wish my other teachers had been so  doubting. 

Armed with this super power of just being an awkward sod, and inspired by the leaders of our world – who find it easier to dismantle than to build – I’ve decided that every day I’m going to create. 

I’m going to create something positive, every day. It might be something small, like an origami crane, something intangible, like a smile in a friend’s heart, something grand, like a piece of music (as my cack-handed guitar playing and less than dulcet singing voice breathe new death into great works of art).

Every day I’ll begin with the question, “what shall I create?” Every day I shall end by asking what I created. Today it’s this blog post; it’s not much, but it’s a step. Tomorrow, who knows?