Monthly Archives: December 2014

Three ways to untangle a complex problem

On the drive back from Lake Tahoe last week, I worked on untangling a very mixed up mess of yarn for a blanket I’m crocheting.

The task seemed impossible, but I kept at it. And by the third hour, I prevailed.

I don’t know if it was the mindfulness of the process, but as I separated thread from thread, I learned three lessons that seem to apply to many of life’s complicated challenges.

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Here’s what the yarn taught me:

1. Loosen first to create space. If I pulled tighter to try to get the job done more quickly, it made everything harder to resolve. But if I pulled the yarn apart, creating space between the threads, new pathways of detanglement appeared.

Likewise, maybe if we can release our rigid grip on how we think life has to go, we just might be surprised by a new solution appearing that we hadn’t seen before. I find this kind of psychological flexibility useful when I’m trying to calm a conflict.

2. Attack the problem from both ends. When I got stuck (and frustrated) focusing my efforts on one end of the yarn, I found the other end and started to work backwards. What I discovered was fascinating. As I untangled one end, it helped the other end too. So I started switching back and forth between ends to solve the puzzle faster.

This strategy could also work in penny-pinching times. Save on spending, and explore ideas for earning more.

On one end, you might make a list of all your expenses for last month and see where you could cut back. For me, it would mean less eating out. And on the other end, you might look at money coming in and brainstorm some ideas for having just a bit more income. I’d be pulled towards freelance projects I could do on the side from home.

3. Recruit help to solve it faster. As I was about half-way done, an 8-year-old voice called out from the back seat. “Mommy, what are you doing? Can I help?” I passed her a chunk of the tangle, and we worked on it together, having fun as well as speeding up the process.

In life, maybe we all too often try to take on big challenges alone. Is there one person who you might call on to help? All it could take is someone to listen as you talk things through, or maybe more hands-on assistance is needed.

Whatever may come this happy new year, let the yarn teach us to spaciously work together from both ends. If you relate to these insights or they help you in some way, please let me know!

Wishing you all the very best for the year ahead, with love.

Mood management, not mood control

We may imagine, perhaps a little glibly, how wonderful it would be to have the ability to control our moods, to create happiness at the press of a button, as it were.

Why would we sit wishing the world would go away, when a simple adjustment could magically make everything better?

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But although mood control might sound idyllic, substitute ‘mind’ for ‘mood’ and you get an altogether different picture. Quite literally, because if you search Google Images for ‘mind control’ it’s all dizziness-inducing hypnotic spirals and conspiracy theory websites.

Mood control might just be one of those things we should be careful about wishing for.

Would you truly want to be so controlled that you’d be immune to spontaneous bursts of pure joy?

Would you want to be unable to respond entirely humanly to events of great sadness?

Would you want to forego the right to shed a few tears at the movies?

Would you really want to live your life like Mr Spock?

Probably not.

Control, however, is a very different thing from management. Perhaps therefore the most you might hope for is learning to manage your moods, making the most of occasionally feeling fantastic, and accepting with good grace the sadness that quite legitimately accompanies life’s less positive happenings.

Unless of course you happen to be half-Vulcan, and have pointy ears.

How to escape from your own prison

As an ex-advertising man it’s probably no surprise that I love Mad Men. I’ve lapped up the first five series on DVD.

Now I know it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but it works on so many levels for me.

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In one particular plotline in Series 4, creative director Don Draper comes up with an award-winning commercial for the agency’s fictitious floor-polish client Glo-coat, in which a young boy in a cowboy hat appears to be behind prison bars.

As the ad progresses, we see that the bars are actually those of the back of a chair, behind which he feels incarcerated while his mother cleans the floor with an inferior polish that apparently takes much longer to dry than Glo-coat. He’s been instructed not to step on the tiles until it has.

In a way, he’s constructed his own jail. Maybe we all do this from time to time?

When times are emotionally good, you feel as though the world’s your oyster. Nothing holds you back. Anything is possible.

But, of course, the reverse can feel true if you’re struggling through a rough patch. Everything holds you back. Nothing is possible.

Sometimes though, the only thing that has truly changed is your own mindset.

It’s very very difficult (perhaps impossible) to snap out of it.

But it can help just a little to remember that if you’ve built the prison, you’re probably the best person in the world to know how to escape from it.

Throw out those unwanted negative thoughts

In the USA, around $2.9 billion is spent every year on gift wrap and related accessories. I imagine a pretty fair chunk of it will be thrown out today, the day after Christmas.

Now I’m not knocking gift wrapping. Like you, perhaps, the sight of brightly packaged presents under the Christmas tree still fills me with the excitement I felt as a kid. There’s also a lot to be said for the pleasure of doing the wrapping itself (in my case generally accompanied by some Christmas tunes and a small libation) and I’m pretty sure nobody would deny that it’s fun to rip the wrapping off a gift – even if it turns out to be one of those awkard ‘just what I’ve always wanted’ presents.

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Of course, community unwrapping can leave your living room strewn with mountains of discarded paper. But even this can be no big deal. Gathering it up for disposal can feel like one of those tasks which gets done faster than one might expect.

A messy room gets considerably tidier in the process, and it’s a chore which puts me in mind of the tendency I have now and then (perhaps you too?) to allow unwanted negative thoughts to creep into my consciousness.

The Dalai Lama has said that “The central method for achieving a happier life is to train your mind in a daily practice that weakens negative attitudes and strengthens positive ones.”

So here’s a suggestion. As you gather up unwanted wrapping paper or put away untidy clutter, why not imagine doing something similar with unneeded thoughts and attitudes?

Just as with most skills, starting out may not be easy but you’ll almost certainly get better with practice.

Begin by recognising your negative attitudes, then question them. Do they really hold water? Are they really neccesary? Are they helping you in any way at all? If not, tell them, quite simply, to go away. To leave you alone. To get the heck out of town.

Do however see if you can send them on their way permanently.

Discarded gift wrapping should be recycled. Discarded negative thoughts shouldn’t.

Storms make the world green again

It’s been stormy here in California for the past couple of weeks. Pelting rain, thick clouds, even some (gasp) thunder.

Growing up in Toronto, Canada, rain was a common occurrence. Nothing to blink an eye at really. But here, it makes the nightly news. “Rain coming! Be prepared!” Some schools even closed for a few days.

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Now admittedly it did rain a lot, probably more than I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been living here. But that’s not the amazing thing.

The day after the ‘big storm’, I was picking up the kids from school when I noticed that the hills all around the Bay Area were covered in an amazingly vibrant green coat instead of their usual brown, dry grass.

The beauty of it struck me, and I realized that we actually need storms sometimes to make the world green again.

As in nature, so in life. My therapist describes the process of growth as “repeatedly falling apart to fall back together again, better.” We need to break sometimes so that we can learn, process, integrate, and rebuild a stronger, maybe brighter version of ourselves.

So that’s my nudge for today, in this holiday week. If you’re weathering an internal storm, try to give yourself some gentle time to let it run its course, keeping yourself as lovingly warm and cozy as you can. It will pass, and the sun will come again.

And you just might find your inner world becoming a more vibrant shade of beautiful green.

With love,

Alexandra

Learning to avoid unhappiness traps

As I’m not a ten-year-old I’m hardly the best person to advise on appropriate strategies to win at videogames.

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Having played a few though, and thinking back a long way to the very first all-text multi-level role playing games (you’re in a cave from which run two dark passages – do you choose the left or right?) I seem to recall that learning as you go, then building on that learning, is a reasonable way to go about things.

The first time through, you choose the left passage but find it blocked by an ogre. So the next time you opt for the one on the right instead.

Little be little, bit by bit, you make mistakes and learn to avoid them when you pass that way again.

In a videogame the ogres and slime-filled ditches are easy to see.

However, in everyday life the impact of obstacles isn’t always so readily evident. So I think that tracking your mood is one of the ways to gather evidence.

Say you’ve been in a low spot, and are steadily climbing out of it, only to find that you go somewhere or do something and – bang – down goes your mood.

A tracking graph (such as the one produced by our WellBee cards) is a perfect way to see this happening before your very eyes. It lets you identify the ogre.

So just as in a game, why not learn from this?

Once you’ve discovered where the beasties lurk, steer clear of them in the next round.

Having one main goal – why Santa gets it right

I’d never seen the movie ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ until last weekend. I know, shame on me.

But a beautiful old cinema in Palo Alto called the Stanford Theater shows vinatge movies year-round. In December it totally devotes its schedule to nostalgic Christmas films, so last Saturday Alex and I settled into cosy seats in its auditorium with a carton of popcorn to enjoy ‘Miracle’, made in 1947.

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Now you may be better informed than me but just in case you aren’t, the movie tells the story of a kind old British gentleman called Kris Kringle who lands the job of ‘playing’ the part of Santa Claus in Macy’s flagship department store on 34th Street in New York city. I say ‘playing’ because the truth is, he very likely is the real Santa, which even ends up being proved in a court case.

The movie is a delight and certainly worth seeing, specially at this time of year. However, having the luxury of the time to sit and watch a movie might seem far-fetched as we approach Christmas: it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you’re supposed to be rushing around in a buying frenzy, preparing for the holidays.

In the movie, Mr. Kringle provided a perfect example of the madness of this, though. Although he had to explain that he wouldn’t be able to attend a party on Christmas Eve (he’d other important work to do, after all) he was entirely at liberty during the run-up to the big day to take on his temporary Christmas job at Macy’s, generally spreading good cheer and bonhomie.

It was a timely reminder of the huge sense in picking just one, or at the most two or three, important goals which hold meaning for you.

So what will matter most to you on Christmas Day? I suspect it might not be having too much food in your fridge, but is instead more likely to involve truly connecting with the people closest to you.

If things get tough this week, if you feel stressed, if you start to panic that you’re running out of time, please stop.

Stop.

You’ve almost certainly got a shorter To-Do list than the movie’s Santa, but even he restricted himself to just one night’s work, and spent the remainder of his time doing what really matters: connecting with other people and making them happy.

Why not focus on that instead?

And if you do want to sit down with someone special this Christmas to watch a movie, there’s one I can thoroughly recommend. Although it probably shouldn’t really be there for copyright reasons, the whole thing is even on YouTube.

Take life one step at a time

Although it’s been a while since I last got out there, hiking in unfamiliar countryside with only a map and compass to guide you can be an exhilarating experience.

I’ve always enjoyed following a detailed map closely enough to feel pretty good when the landmark I was expecting loomed into view.

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An expedition such as this works best when you know where you’re headed, but the step-by-step progress generally requires most of your attention to be focused on where you are now, and where you’ll be going in the next half mile or so.

If you fail to work like this, and instead simply keep staring at your destination on the map, you’re probably going to end up well and truly lost.

Quite rightly we’re encouraged to ‘look at the big picture’, to set ourselves targets and goals, to have grand visions.

And to some extent there’s nothing wrong with doing so.

But once you’ve a broad idea of where you hope to be one day, I think it often makes most sense just to focus on the here and now.

Perhaps it’s good enough (and possibly utterly appropriate) to simply concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other?

Do know where you are, though. (And beware of the bull in the next field.)

How to discover a new side of yourself (and others)

Last week Jon and I had the great privilege of taking WellBee into a local Montessori school and showing the cards to six classrooms full of excited kids. We sat on the floor, with 20+ children sitting around us in each class. Every child had a set of WellBee cards spread out in front of them. We explained the idea and then let them play and ask questions.

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What we learned was incredible. Here are three key insights I came away with:

1. The kids’ reaction to the cards was far more enthusiastic than I had dared to expect. They kept asking us, “Can we keep these?” and “When will the app version be available?”

They also got to see the range of wellbeing scores for their classmates, some of whom had scored fairly poorly. This seemed to raise the empathy level in the room. The kids learned that people in the same room can feel very differently on the inside.

2. I was surprised to see how much I had grown personally. When I did this kind of outreach for my last startup CureTogether, I used to get really nervous. I would have to rehearse and prepare before talking to anyone. I wouldn’t sleep. I’d have intense butterflies in my stomach for days, before and after any meeting.

This time around, with WellBee, I’m stronger. I believe in the concept with my whole being. I can now just show up and talk easily to people of all ages about it and not be nervous at all.

3. Jon’s talent at leading a mini-workshop impressed me immensely. He captured the kids’ attention from the moment we walked in, and kept them engaged and connected throughout. It seemed effortless for him, although I know he did prepare very thoughtfully for the day. He even designed a whole new, simplified set of cards for the younger munchkins (pictured above).

The lesson here? Put yourself in a new environment, and you can discover new sides of people – both yourself and people you think you know quite well.

Our day at school was inspiring, connecting, and surprising. We’ll be doing things like this again, definitely.

And maybe you could try putting yourself in a new environment too, for a day, or an hour? Go somewhere you wouldn’t normally go. Take a different route home from work. Show up for a class in something you’ve been wanting to try. If any insights come up or you discover something new about yourself, we’d love to hear about it!

Wishing you a day of discovery,

Alex 🙂

Smile like you mean it

‘Go on, give us a smile.’

Hmm. They’re just about the last words you want to hear when you’re feeling far from smiley.

In fact when you’re stuck in Glumsville without a ticket, any half-smile you do manage will both look and feel false.

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Psychologists call the real thing (the one you produce when you truly mean it) a Duchenne smile, whereas the fake one is sometimes referred to as a Pan-Am one – in honour of that now defunct airline’s flight attendants’ perfunctory mouth curves.

Real smiles produce crinkly lines alongside your eyes, whereas fake ones don’t.

When you think about it, however (as I hadn’t before now) isn’t it intriguing that we refer to ‘giving’ a smile?

Giving, not ‘showing’, for instance.

When I passed a busking banjo player the other morning, I could give him no money but after catching his eye, I did give him a smile, and he gave me one in return.

A smile is a great gift to give, as it makes both recipient and giver feel better. Perfect for these economic times too, as it’s the gift that costs no money. (Sorry about that though, Banjo Man.)

OK, so I’m sending you a smile here and now (honest, I’m actually doing it).

So how about passing it on today? Perhaps even a couple of times.