Monthly Archives: June 2014

Plan a better day. Today.

The BBC’s blinding ‘Sherlock’ features a modern-day Sherlock Holmes who describes himself as the world’s first consulting detective. Super-clever, super-confident, Sherlock makes what he does seem child’s play:

1. I observe everything.

2. From what I observe, I deduce everything.

3. When I’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how mad it might seem, must be the truth.

Simple, huh? Well no, not really, unless of course you possess unhuman levels of observation and deduction. I certainly don’t.

Fortunately it didn’t exactly take Holmesian powers when I wanted to work out what was behind one of the big differences between my better and worse days. I tell you not to claim I’m anything out of the ordinary but because I wonder whether you’ve gone through a similar kind of experience?

For me, a good day is generally marked by feeling I’ve been productive, and I tend to achieve this by being very driven by a timed To-Do list. As I write this, for instance, I’m feeling better than I have in a long while, and also know I have precisely 35 minutes to put this post to bed. I’ll then have lunch for exactly one hour, followed by more writing until 3pm. The entire day has been – and will be – just as structured as this probably sounds.

On a bad day, though, oh dear. Once I’ve got up, I’ll mooch aimlessly until it’s time for bed again, when I’ll be utterly dissatisfied with what’s been achieved.

OK, I’m fully aware that my situation allows me to set my own schedule to a large extent, a luxury not available to everyone. But just like you, I’m sure, I do have responsibilities and expectations of me which are beyond my control: it’s just that on my better days I plan and prioritise to a pretty fine level of detail, whilst at shabbier times there’s generally not even a whisper of a To-Do list on my desk (nor of me at it).

Which comes first, though? The better day or the tightly structured schedule? Well, in one of those handy quirks of human psychology, cause and effect can be usefully ‘flipped’.

You can make a good day even better by managing your time well, but you can turn a grey day into a brighter one by (you guessed it) managing your time well.

Feeling good today? Get on with that To-Do list. Feeling rough? Get on with that To-Do list (admittedly setting far lower expectations of yourself and being kinder to you).

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Know your strengths

The three months I spent working for a Californian carnival (travelling funfair) in my early twenties were some of the happiest of my life. Managing my sideshow at weekends, then on the road in a truck and trailer on weekdays – camping overnight wherever we happened to be – taught me life lessons which call out to me even now.

You make friends quickly and deeply when you experience an adventure like this, so when it was sadly time to pick up my backpack and head back to another world, it was crushing to say goodbye to Jack, Cathy, Kris and Zeke (where are you all now?)

I was so touched that they’d clubbed together to buy me a leaving present after I’d only worked with them for three months. For goodness’ sake, some people spend twenty years in a job and leave without so much as a potted plant.

What did they get me? My first ever Swiss Army penknife, that’s what. I’ve owned several since then, but you never forget your first Swiss Army knife – the Explorer model, with fifteen blades and tools including a magnifying glass and scissors.

I loved that knife, and it stayed close at hand for many years until it sadly got lost somewhere (where are you now?) but although you could, and I did, carry out a surprisingly large number of tasks with it, there were others for which it just wasn’t equipped. There’s nothing on a Swiss Army knife which will help you change a wheel on your car for instance, nor would it be sensible to consider using it to carry out surgery.

Of course, just as a multi-bladed penknife has its strengths and weaknesses, so too do you and I. We may well be good at a few things, but nobody can excel at everything. If my trusty little knife had a soul, I think it would have been at its happiest sharpening a pencil, removing a splinter, or slicing up a picnic lunch. It would almost certainly have been less chirpy if expected to prune a tree, even a modest little dwarf cypress.

You and I are happiest when we recognise our strengths, still more so when we apply them. And we’re least happy when, thanks to our weaknesses, we struggle along with the kind of challenge for which we’re just not equipped.

So maybe today’s a perfect one to celebrate your strengths (you know you have them, and if you stop to think for a minute, you know what they are) and put them to good use.

Just as important, acknowledge your weaknesses because, I’m not kidding, everyone has them. Ask for help from someone better equipped than you. There really is no shame in doing so.

As I said, I really loved that little Swiss Army knife.

Not for what it couldn’t do, but for what it could.

Loving others to love yourself

No matter your age, the Exploratorium in San Francisco is a fabulous feast for the mind. In some senses it’s a science museum. However to call it just this is to do it a complete disservice, because it’s actually a vast collection of scientific experiments begging to be played with. It’s been described as “a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one”, with which I’d completely agree.

I first went to the old Exploratorium as a student in my early twenties, then Alex, I and our two girls recently had a totally brilliant day when we visited its new and latest incarnation after its re-opening a little over a year ago.

The museum’s stated mission is to change the way the world learns, and if you’re ever lucky enough to spend some time there yourself one day, I’m sure you wouldn’t argue with that. In fact the old Exploratorium was founded at the end of the 1960s under the inspired leadership of physicist and educator Frank Oppenheim (younger brother of J Robert Oppenheimer who is often referred to as one of the “fathers of the atomic bomb” thanks to his work on the Manhattan Project, the World War II mission to develop atomic weaponry).

Younger brother Frank – “the other Oppenheimer” – was a particle physicist and cattle rancher, and as we’ve just seen, someone who had truly exciting views about education and learning. In fact it was he who first said “the best way to learn is to teach”, an idea which came up in a recent conversation Alex had with her friend Simon.

She told him that after practicing Tai Chi for many years, she’d gone on to teach a class herself, which was when she understood that explaining something to others requires that you have a considerably higher level of understanding.

Now, although we reflect from time to time in these posts on the impact that learning itself can have upon your mood, for a minute I’d just like you to think about the general principle of only really understanding something when you’ve first explained it to someone else.

And the “something” I have in mind? Love. Alex wrote beautifully about it yesterday, and now here’s my little variation on her theme.

In the past, when my mood has been low I really didn’t like myself and I certainly didn’t love myself. And of course this self-hatred didn’t exactly help my overall disposition. You despise yourself when your mood’s low, then your mood becomes even lower when you despise yourself.

Wonderful.

But after struggling for too many years, what I think I only now properly understand is that the only possible way to have any chance of loving yourself is to first love others, and this seems pretty profound, so I’ll say it again.

The only possible way to have any chance of loving yourself is to first love others.

So please, by all means, think of this as today unfolds – particularly if you’re feeling blue and unloved. Can you make yourself love others? Probably not. But can you at least try?

You know, I think you can.

How to fall in love today

Have you ever looked into the eyes of a loved one and felt completely safe, deeply connected, and totally in love? There’s a warm rush of excitement, and a timelessness to the moment. You could stay right there forever, wrapped up in adoration.

And then, more often than not, it flitters away, and you go back to your daily life.

But what if you could recreate that feeling whenever you wanted it? Wouldn’t that make life amazing? Imagine going through your day with colleagues and family members feeling uplifted by the smiles of love lighting up your face.

The first time I heard this idea, I thought it was crazy. I was taking a training course to be a counselor, and on the first day the teacher told us that we were going to walk through the room of about 150 students, stop in front of a random person, and spend a minute looking into their eyes and falling in love with them. Then we would go on to another person and fall in love with them, and so on. We did this about ten times, and by the end of it the room that had initially seemed scary with so many strange faces was filled with such love and connection that it seemed to glow.

My whole perspective changed, and I began to see these new people as humans like me, beautiful and struggling and loving and hurt and wonderful. We all related to each other with much more compassion and understanding after that.

So how did I do that, actually go around and fall in love with people at the drop of a hat? I don’t remember the teacher’s instructions now, but I do know how I’ve learned to do it.

Here are three things you can do to fall in love today, or right now.

1. Whenever you catch someone’s eye for more than a second, try to look a bit deeper. See if you can imagine that person as she was when she was a child, and feel the tenderness of her vulnerability. Look for the pure, innocent love of a young boy shining out of his heart underneath that tough exterior. Then notice if your heart softens just a bit.

2. This second tip is from Amma, the “hugging saint.” Jon and I took our girls to see her last week. She has comforted an astounding 34 million people with individual healing hugs. Amma said in her talk that though you may have a hundred different buckets of water, each one reflects the same sunshine.

If you can tap into this realization that there is the same light and love in everyone else’s heart as there is in yours, you won’t feel so separate from them, and you might start to love the part of them that is the same as you.

3. We are often quick to judge people, especially people we don’t know well. But what do we know about them, really? If you notice yourself falling into judgment, as we all do, think about this quote attributed to Plato: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind always.

What if the woman on the train across from you just lost her son, or the cashier who rang up your order was just diagnosed with cancer, or the DJ from last night’s dance struggles with chronic pain? You might find your heart feeling more compassionate as you think about them now. Maybe you feel a sense of wanting to take care of them and send them love.

So those are my three tips for falling in love today. Do you have others? If you try one of them out today, let me know how it works for you!

How to get exercise without meaning to

I fully appreciate the irony of what follows, as I’ll be sitting in one place writing this post for the next sixty minutes or so, but you and I ought never to forget the importance of building an appropriate amount of exercise into our day. Being energetic whenever possible is a sure-fire way to benefit from the surge of endorphins which generally results from exercise, delivering an effect to your brain that’s not unlike that of morphine.

Actually I got my dose of feel-good chemicals this morning when Alex and I took off for a two-hour walk amongst the redwood trees. The sun shone, squirrels scampered in the undergrowth, and a scaredy-cat truck driver got nervous about stepping down from his cab as he spotted a four-foot snake slithering through the long grass beneath him.

A lot can happen in two hours.

The thing is, we can all enjoy the after-effects of exercise even when life is so busy that there doesn’t seem to be even two minutes free, let alone two hours.

Perhaps you’ll be walking somewhere today? If so – and if possible – try to increase your pace as much as possible. Even if you’re not able to take a “proper” hike, imagine you’re late and get those legs moving wherever you walk. Even better if you get yourself a little breathless.

Taking the car? Leave a little earlier and park a little further away than you usually would, walking the rest of the way (again, try to set yourself a speedy pace).

About to leap into an elevator somewhere? Unless it’s impossible, consider taking the stairs instead. You’ll get to the same floor but with your heart beating a little faster.

Your mood will nearly always be a co-beneficiary when you get physical, and it really is possible to build in unexpected exercise around your everyday activities.

What are you waiting for?

Connect with people just by listening

I distinctly remember a conversation with two friends a couple of years ago when one of them rather haughtily dismissed the books of Dale Carnegie, almost certainly never actually having read them. I think I did my normal thing of just letting the criticism lie, but the other friend rose to the books’ defence as I should probably have done myself.

“Who wouldn’t want to win friends and influence people?” he argued, and he had a point. For although you may find the title of, say, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” a little on the blatant side, surely we do all want – and need – friends? And don’t we hope, just a little, to affect others – to influence them?

Dale Carnegie was a poor farmer’s son born in 1888, who in his early twenties set out on the road to teaching self-improvement by presenting classes at the YMCA in New York city. His “Friends and Influence” book was originally published in 1936 and rightly remains popular to this day. (Note to self: re-read it.)

For me, one of its key take-outs was his view that “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

And I’m sure Carnegie was right in this respect. In general, people love it when someone else shows genuine interest in them, and I’m pretty certain this can come in handy if you happen to be going through a rough patch yourself.

It’s not exactly rocket science to appreciate how valuable it can be to connect with others when your mood is low, but it’s equally, and painfully, obvious that a dose of the blues is likely to leave you feeling anything but sociable.

For instance, although you’re hardly likely to beat a path to a party, let alone be its life and soul, day-to-day life might well bring you into contact with other people and when it does – as I’ve discovered over the years – it’s possible to take a real interest in them even when you’re struggling with your mood. True, you may not be on sparkling form, but it’s surprising how much connection can take place through the simple act of asking questions and listening – properly – to the answers.

And of course when the other person engages with you as a result of this, you both benefit.

Now, I don’t know whether Dale Carnegie struggled with depression or not, but at least some of his wisdom is perfect for those of us who do.

How to benefit from helping others

Boy oh boy. Sailors in the 17th century English Navy had it tough. Not only did they have to contend with scurvy, caused by vitamin-deficiency (and, interestingly, eventually solved by the Scottish ship’s surgeon James Lind using what was probably the world’s first randomised controlled clinical trial) they were punished pretty mercilessly for the smallest of misdemeanours.

Simply being absent, drunk or disobedient was enough to get a sailor tied to the ship’s mast and flogged with a cat o’ nine tails by another member of the crew. There was, however, a way of doing a deal with another man which minimised the effects of such severe punishment. Apparently you paired up with someone else and agreed to inflict the minimum pain on him in return for this other fellow treating you similarly leniently when it was your own turn to be lashed.

Such light strokes of the whip were termed mere ‘scratches’ and led to a phrase we still use today, probably without realising its original meaning.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Nowadays the expression implies that someone who helps another may benefit from having their favour repaid, and this principle, “reciprocity”, is certainly one way of doing well from doing good. However there can be mood-lifting effects when you help others above and beyond a simple two-way exchange of kindness.

It’s worth remembering, for example, the phenomenon that psychologists refer to as the ‘helper’s high’, the flow of feel-good neurotransmitters which results from nothing more complicated than doing something kind for another person.

Although being kind ought to be simple, it isn’t always. It takes time. It takes attention. It takes thoughtfulness.

But it doesn’t usually cost anything. It doesn’t generally get in the way of the other stuff you have to do. And it doesn’t seem anything other than a fine idea to me.

So please make a mental note to look for small opportunities to help others during the course of the next day. And thank the Lord you’re not a 17th century sailor.

Feeling part of something bigger

Although it’s been twenty years since I officially worked in advertising (I continued with the occasional freelance project after I changed careers) I’m still a fan of clever examples of marketing communication and tip my proverbial hat to the writer, art director or designer of anything I see that tickles my tastebuds. I also enjoy reading books about my former profession, especially when they’re written by those I’ve always respected in an I’m-not-worthy way.

Since in my opinion John Hegarty is a genius ad man who falls into this category, I loved his recent book, ‘Hegarty on Creativity: There are No Rules’. Now, when someone’s as gifted as he is, you totally excuse them for a bit of own-trumpet blowing so it was nice to be reminded of a Levi’s press ad that was one of the first pieces of work produced by BBH, the agency Hegarty co-founded in 1982. The ad was for the jeans manufacturer’s new black denim range and featured an image of a single black sheep headed in the opposite direction to a herd of white sheep, with the headline: ‘When the world zigs, zag.’

That was it. No product photograph, no body copy. Just the suggestion that if you wanted to plough your own furrow, you knew what to wear.

However while I entirely applaud this sentiment, still love the ad, and in fact am often to be found in black Levi’s (who says advertising doesn’t work?) there’s a slightly uncomfortable side to going against the flow, and I suspect that if you, like me, are subject to the occasional blue mood, you’ll know what I mean.

By some horrid quirk of the human psyche, it’s often the case that when going through a rough patch you can actually feel completely disconnected from others in a way I’m sure John Hegarty never intended. Far from seeing yourself as a fad-defying individual, you’re likely to feel more of a reject, more of an outcast. A pretty unpleasant self-image.

At times like this, it seems to me that there’s value in – however temporarily – seeking out white sheep activities that can carry you along with the herd and make you feel part of something bigger.

I can find this kind of connection by simply taking myself to places where there are also others. So rather than work at home, I’ll take my laptop to a library or coffee shop. Instead of watching TV on my own, I’ll go to the cinema. I’ll seek out public talks where I can sit in an audience and feel less lonely.

It’s great to zag, and heaven knows, the world needs more original thinkers, more who want to create change.

When times are not so great though, perhaps we all need to find ways to zig?

Love yourself as you love others

I’m sure the purest form of love is that between a parent and their child, for it tends to be unconditional. Generally a parent loves their child no matter what they do, and from time to time I’m sure you’ve come across stories of parents who’ve continued to stand by a son or daughter after they’ve committed some dreadful crime.

Fortunately most parents don’t have to face dilemmas like this, and we tend to accept that the bond between a mother or father and their son or daughter really is unconditional.

Now you may or may not be a parent, but I wonder if you extend this principle to loving yourself?

Perhaps not. Do you love yourself on a good day, but exhibit substantially lower levels of self-compassion when you’re going through a rough patch? You know, you wouldn’t be the first if you did. When I feel reasonably happy I tend to feel OK about myself. But ask me to make a similar judgement when my mood has dipped, and the answer would be quite different. I’m not proud to admit I’ve gone through periods of substantial self-loathing. Ouch.

I truly hope you’ve not been unfortunate enough to share the experience, but you have my profound sympathies if you have. Ouch.

The highly-respected psychologist Albert Ellis described two outlooks when it comes to self regard.

The first is conditional, when we accept ourselves only when things go well. The second is unconditional, when our self-acceptance occurs no matter what happens.

Not one to beat around the bush, so seriously did Albert Ellis view the damaging effects of conditional self-love that he called them ‘deadly’.

A big part of self-compassion is learning to be comfortable with yourself. A parent doesn’t tell their child that they’ll only love them if they change, but isn’t this just what you and I say to ourselves at times?

Building levels of self-esteem, compassion and acceptance can be a big challenge, involving months or even years of therapy for some people. But maybe we can take a more immediate, less ambitious ‘nudge’ approach today?

And this, quite simply, is to be as kind with yourself as you would be with others, no matter what you might think you have or haven’t done.

You are who you are, and very little can change this. Please be nice to yourself today.

Negative or positive?

Imagine if you will a toddler with an over-protective mother. Every day she frets about all that could or might go wrong. She worries about every possible harm that could befall her son, so she never lets him out of her sight, and stops him having contact with anyone other than a few carefully-screened others.

For fear of upsetting his digestion, she feeds her little boy only the blandest foods.

She steers him away from dogs, puddles and climbable trees. So sure is she of impending doom that she forces her little boy to live in the bubble she creates for him.

Now imagine another mother, full of confidence and totally at ease with life. This mother’s son gets to do all the things little boys should. He plays with others, pets dogs, splashes in puddles, climbs trees and scrapes his knees as he slides down.

This mother doesn’t obsess about all that might go wrong. No, she sees instead that life can be full of opportunity, packed with possibility. Rather than worrying about what might go wrong, she imagines all that could go right.

Be honest, if you were a child again, which mother would have made you stronger? Which would have ensured you the happiest childhood? Which would have equipped you with the most resilient, confident mindset?

Perhaps you’d agree with me that it would probably be the second.

Now although you’re probably not about to relive your childhood any time soon, perhaps there’s an inner mother who still lives inside you? Maybe there’s a voice which whispers warnings, weighing you down with the tendency to take a negative approach at times?

That’s what it feels like for me sometimes, even though I’m pretty sure I grew up with parents who encouraged me to take risks and chances, looking for the positive in life.

Sadly though, low mood can play a big part in making you feel pessimistic. So when it does, you have my full permission to talk back to this inner critic. Tell them that – no – it’s really not alright to take such a gloomy approach.

Far better if you can to go into each day seeking out the things that might just go right, rather than worrying about everything that could go wrong.

Who knows? Perhaps we really do tend to find whatever we choose to look for?