Monthly Archives: July 2016

Could living a life be like driving a car?

When I learned to drive, few cars had automatic gearboxes. Knowing how to use the clutch and gear stick was part and parcel of the process for me.

Of course these days there are many more automatics around, but I still enjoy driving a car that puts me in charge of the gear I drive in. Four (or five) choices when it comes to going forward, and just the one when you need to reverse, which is not a bad analogy for the way we progress through life.


Although it’s usual to move forward, there will always be times when you need to back up a little. When you do so, move slowly: there’s no need to rush. And aim to go no more than a short way in reverse. It’s usually used for parking rather than long-distance motoring, and that’s why there’s just the one backwards gear.

Use your forward gears in succession – both upwards and downwards. Get things started in first gear, which will move you slowly but surely. Change up only when the time’s right. You’ll know when it is. When you need to slow up, change down gradually.

Some may argue that taking a positive approach to life means being bullish and full-on all the time, but maybe it makes more sense to learn from a car’s manual gearbox? There are several forward modes, and the trick, I’m sure, is to know which gear to use when.

In inclement conditions we’re generally advised to drive slowly in a low gear. It gives you more power. Wise advice next time you’re going through a difficult patch yourself, perhaps?

Reacting to bad experiences is normal, but so is recovering from them.

I suspect we all know someone who appears to skate through life seemingly untouched by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If things do ever go wrong (and they’ll almost certainly claim that this hardly ever happens to them) they appear to brush them off as meaningless, puffing that they’re unaffected.

Superficially we may envy them. How useful, we might think, to have a hide that’s thick enough to be able to ignore life’s misfortunes. How nice to never fret about problems and setbacks.


I wonder, though. Maybe a person who’s apparently so immune to day-to-day disasters will also be somewhat insensitive to life’s brighter moments? Perhaps, too, they’re relatively self-centred, and have only a low regard for those around them?

To be honest, it seems perfectly normal to react to bad times and unhappy events. After all, isn’t that part of what makes us human?

True resilience, I think, starts with an acknowledgement that you’re going through a rough patch. It’s not about pretending that everything is fine.

But then it continues with the awareness that, given sufficient time, things often improve. It’s also helpful to look back at difficult times in the past, with a view to learning what worked for you then.

Perhaps you found it useful to talk things through with someone? Maybe you wrote a letter which enabled you to gather your thoughts? Alternatively a long walk in the country might have been part of the answer for you?

I think we each have our individual strategies for tackling adversity. There’s a lot of sense in asking yourself what yours is, then having it ready for some day when it may again be useful.

Even on the sunniest day there are 2,000 stars above your head.

Picture the blackest of nights.

The sky is cloudless.

It’s warm enough to be sitting outside, and you’re sufficiently far from sources of artificial light that your eyes can take in all the heavens have to offer.

What do you see?

The chances are, you’ll be staggered by the vast array of stars up there.

Although experts differ somewhat in their view, it seems likely that in perfect conditions around two thousand are visible with the naked eye from any one place on the surface of our planet, and many more are there if you peer through a telescope.


But the thing is, those two thousand stars are there all the time, even when you can’t see them.

In fact, even at this precise moment they’re above your head.

Clouds, ceilings and daylight may make them invisible to you, but they’re right there, right now.

Of course it’s not just stars that form a rich potential feast for your eyes.

Everywhere you look, there’s more to see than most of us believe.

Your world is full of detail and wonder, yet on a low day you may (like me) wander through it paying scant attention, eaten up with your own negative thoughts.

Oh yes, I know what this is like.

However at any one microscopic moment, your mind can hold just a single thought, and it’s a relatively simple trick to make this a neutral one (as you actively engage with your environment) instead of the unhelpful ones which are probably churning round and round in your head.

A night sky can be breathtakingly majestic.

With an open mind, so can a walk down the street.

On seeing red when someone asks if you’re feeling better.

I like to think of myself as being pretty mild-mannered.

I don’t fly into a furious rage if someone cuts me up in traffic.

I definitely don’t throw a hissy fit when someone uses the last of the toilet roll without replacing it.

And I only get slightly miffed (honest) when a telemarketer calls at an inappropriate moment (although, frankly, isn’t any moment inappropriate when it comes to telemarketers?).


However, lest this should paint me as some paragon of patience, there does actually happen to be one scenario which makes me see red, in a furious, livid and really rather ashamed kind of way.

Maybe it’s just me, but I do get disproportionately angry when, after I’ve been going through a bad time, someone who really ought to know me well asks ‘Are you feeling better?’.

I shouldn’t blame them of course.

They’ve almost certainly said it innocently.

Unfortunately, however, in the mind of the receiver this very innocent little question can translate itself into ‘I’m really not sure there was anything terribly wrong with you anyway, but I’m assuming you’re now over it’.

I know it’s wrong in so many ways to interpret it in this way, but that’s the danger of closed questions.

They make assumptions.

They discourage meaningful answers.

And they make me cross.

So if you really want to know how I feel, please do the proper open-ended thing.

Ask ‘How are you feeling?’, then you’re more likely to get the truth from me.

It’s good for us to connect with others, and the more we do it, the better we’re likely to feel.

It’s crucial to remember, though, that good connection is just as much about quality as it is about quantity.

A good radio interviewer asks open-ended questions, rather than ones which solicit no more than one word answers, so perhaps today’s a day to make like a broadcaster?

As for me, am I feeling better?

Well I was until you asked me.

Can you learn to love painful criticism?

As I’ve said in the past, I used to work in advertising.

In those days, when market research supported my creative work it was the best thing in the world.

Market Researchers? What a noble profession. What perfect people to prove that your way is the only way.

However when the researchers came back and reported that the public would rather stick pins in their eyes than be exposed to my advertising, well, what did they know?

What use is research anyway? Those who understand advertising, do advertising. Those who don’t, go into market research.



Over time, you’re supposed to get better at accepting the stinging rebukes that only a focus group fuelled on Pringles and warm white wine can unleash on your lovingly crafted storyboards.

But of course the truth is that it always hurts, even if you show it less than you once did.

Tears in the boardroom are so unprofessional.

Now and then, their barbed comments were unjustified.

Maybe the facilitator had turned up late, or someone in the group had wound up everyone else.

Perhaps they were really disappointed with the Sauvignon Blanc.

Generally (and sadly) though, they usually had a point, even if they expressed it rather vitriolically.

Handling criticism from others is never easy, especially if you happen to be at a low ebb yourself, so perhaps it can help to recall what I learnt at the pointy end of market research debriefs:

1. They’re not having a go at you, just at the work. When someone criticises you, try to view it as a comment about some aspect of your overall makeup which isn’t actually the core you. ‘You’re always moody’ might be partly true, but for a start it’s probably not ‘always’, and in any case your low mood is a behaviour rather than a fundamental part of what makes you. So even though it’s most unfair, see if you can view it as them moaning about your ‘work’ rather than about you per se.

2. It’s up to you to choose how much notice you take. Reporters say they always ignore readers’ letters written in green ink. Some people moan and groan simply for the sake of it, and have a pop at you while they also grumble about everything else in life. If you can, take little notice of feedback from this type of unhelpful person. In any case, though, you really can choose to turn your back on anything that’s said to you. At the end of the day you’ve probably got much more power over this than you may sometimes believe.

3. By and large they’re saying it because they want to help. With the exception of the professional moaners referenced above, a lot of criticism is levelled because the person making it wants to see things change. They want people and businesses to do a better job. They want the world to be a sunnier place. Nearly always, look behind the flak and you’ll find an element of truth. If you choose, learn from it and – if you wish – act on it.

Meanwhile to the lady who, in a focus group years ago, grumbled that the family I’d sketched on one of my concept boards looked like Martians, I can only say ‘Madam, you were quite right’.

What can you still have the same amount of, even after you’ve given it away?

If a shepherd gives away three of his fifty sheep, he has a smaller flock than he began with.

When a greengrocer gives away half his apples as free samples, there’s less in his shop than there was when he opened that morning.

Should a millionaire give away half her fortune, her bank account would be less flush than it was.

It goes without saying that there are some things in life – sheep, apples, money for example – whose quantity diminishes as you distribute them.

I give to you, then you have some of what I had, while I now have less.


But of course there are other things that don’t leave us worse off when we give them away.

I’ve typed this message, for instance, which is now on your computer or phone.

But it’s also still on my mine.

If you recorded a version of The Yellow Rose of Texas on your ukulele and sent me an MP3 (thanks – just what I always wanted) we’d both have copies.

So, thank goodness some would say, the idea of depletion through giving-away falls apart in the digital world.

It’s a principle, after all, which is part of what underpins the information revolution, but as a matter of fact it’s nothing new.

Consider my Exhibit H: Help.

If you give me your help, do you somehow have less of it to give?

Well, not really.

Help is a mysterious resource which can be given, or not, in a seemingly infinite range of amounts – without taking anything away from us.

Giving lots of help may of course tire us – even overload us at times.

Broadly, however, giving your help doesn’t cost you.

In fact it’s even better than that, as it may well leave your emotional bank balance better off than it was.

Helping others can make you feel good in and of itself, and what’s not to like about that?

I imagine there won’t be too many opportunities to give away sheep today.

So why not think about giving away some of your help?

Why you don’t really have to be religious to feel part of something bigger

Some say having a religious belief makes you less likely to suffer from depression, and more inclined to recover faster from it if you do experience it.

However, when the research organisation Gallup looked at this in the United States a couple of years ago, their findings were less clear-cut than you might have expected.

While it was true that very religious Americans (those who rarely missed a weekly visit to a place of worship) did indeed seem less prone to depression and anxiety than those who said they were non-religious, this last group actually did better (ie they reported fewer bouts of depression and anxiety) than people who described themselves as only moderately religious.

Don’t you just love research?

Right when you think you’ve got a strong hypothesis, along comes the real world to confound your thinking.


It’s not for me to claim I understand what’s going on here, but I’m sure it’s a complicated old mix of cause and effect, along with what people tell researchers and what they actually do/think, coupled with lots of other factors too.

I’m not (really) religious but some of my best friends are, and I’m perfectly comfortable with this.

However, leaving religion to one side, I do still get the feeling that there’s something important about feeling I’m part of something that’s bigger than me.

It helps give me the feeling that I’m living a life of some meaning (an outlook that can be seriously undermined if I’m going through a tough time).

Where do you find meaning?

Well, without going into things too deeply, perhaps one easily accessible way is to actively work at getting to know the people around you better?

Developing empathy for others and allowing them in so they can reciprocate can help, I think.

If you want to feel cared for, caring for other people is a fine place to start.

If you’re very religious, you may have this already sewn up, but if you’re like me, it won’t hurt to try and get a little closer to the people with whom you come into contact today.

Not necessarily physically, of course.

I wouldn’t want to get you arrested.