Monthly Archives: August 2018

Lessons in change, from the dead plant that wasn’t

After a full month away from home in July while I house-sat for a friend, I guess it wasn’t entirely surprising that the little sage plant outside my front door finally decided to call it a day.

When I left, it had been greenly abundant, but when I returned it was little more than a few scant twigs poking up from the wooden box of soil in which it had eked out its existence.

With nobody to water it, there was little hope of it surviving.

Or so you might think.

You see, I decided to not give up on that little plant.

As you can tell by me leaving a plant to fend for itself in the hot California sun for a month, I’m really not much of a gardener.

However, my instincts told me that, just maybe, a rescue mission might be possible.

Bending the plant’s dry stalks, I snapped off those that appeared dried out beyond repair, clearing the box so its only inhabitant was the stumpy little sage plant.

I then started watering it every day.

Not too much, but daily, like clockwork.

As you might expect, for several days nothing happened at all, beyond the soil starting to take on a healthier dark colour, in contrast to its former pallid ash-like appearance.

But then, miracle of miracles, after a week of watering, the tiniest, weeniest green leaves started sprouting from what had looked like a completely dead stem.

Another few days later, those microscopic leaves had grown, and had been joined by others.

While bringing the sage plant back to life feels like a genuine small win, perhaps the greatest value of this little experience has been to remind me of four important steps that enable transformation of some kind to happen.

I’m pretty sure that this can apply to people like you and me, just as well as it does to sage plants.

First, there needed it to be hope.

If I’d believed I’d be wasting my time on the plant, I wouldn’t have begun its attempted rejuvenation.

Equally, if you want to experience a change of some kind in yourself, it seems important to believe that change is indeed possible.

The second step involved clearing away the dead growth.

Perhaps the parallel for us as humans is that we should do our level best to repress the negative thoughts that threaten to interfere with the change we desire.

Being aware of them is a good start. Saying no to them may be hard, but it’s not impossible.

Step three in Operation Sage involved consistently watering every day.

Human change demands much the same, I think.

Creating a new habit, for example, means doing something every day, showing determined persistence.

The final piece of the jigsaw with the sage bush was to be patient, not expecting to see immediate results.

I’m sure this is equally true when we want to experience some kind of change in our own lives.

Since it’s probably not going to happen overnight, it’s sensible to allow things to take their own due time.

What worked for the plant may also be a good approach for you and me, therefore:

1. Have hope.

2. Clear the way for change.

3. Be persistent.

4. Have patience.

Perhaps these four steps will prompt you to consider a transformation of your own?

Whatever happens, though, I’m happy to credit my plucky little plant for its, well, sage advice.

Reach out and touch someone.

Of course, there was no way it could have actually been a crime scene, but I certainly did a double-take as I walked across the Stanford campus just now.

For there, on the asphalt, were two life-size chalked human outlines, and although it was hard for me to tell if they’d been drawn around real people, they certainly had a kind of CSI look about them.

The outlines were positioned more or less head-to-head, but what particularly drew me to them was that the two individuals’ hands overlapped each other’s, giving the effect of them holding hands.

Just to avoid any misinterpretation, the artist had added a little heart and the initials “M+I.”

If you come across something like this, it’s no accident that you could use the word “touching” to describe it. Touch can be such an important part of our interconnections with others.

Although I guess that’s obvious in intimate relationships, that’s not the path I’m taking today.

No, I’m thinking more about small physical contacts that can gently enrich our connections with others.

Before we go anywhere, let’s acknowledge that some people definitely don’t enjoy any kind of touch, especially from anyone they don’t know well, so it’s important to be super-mindful of not offending or upsetting others by crossing their boundaries.

If you’re not sure exactly where those boundaries are drawn, it’s generally better to err on the side of caution. Although it might be tempting (you never know), probably best to avoid a full-on hug with the driver as you board the Number 27, for example.

But having said this, touch is such a powerful phenomenon.

It was, after all, the very first sense you acquired as a baby.

No wonder it has such strong associations, then. And it may help to explain why different kinds of touch can convey different kinds of emotions.

In 2009, psychologist Matthew Hertenstein ran an experiment in which volunteers were asked to communicate a list of eight emotions to a blindfolded stranger, solely using touch.

So, when prompted to communicate either anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, or sadness, how did the volunteers do?

Remarkably, accuracy rates were as high as 78%, demonstrating that a simple touch can say a heck of a lot.

Another experiment in 1976 involved university librarians returning library cards either with or without briefly touching the student’s hand.

When interviewed shortly afterwards, students who’d been touched rated both librarian and library more favourably, even when they hadn’t noticed the touch.

Although – as we’ve said – some people dislike being touched, the right kind of contact can be welcome for many.

And it’s one of those areas of life where it doesn’t seem to matter who goes first.

Dr Tiffany Field, Director of the awesome-sounding Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine explains that a person giving a hug gets just as much benefit as the person being hugged.

What’s more, when there’s nobody within touching distance, experts say even self-touch can be a powerful calming mechanism.

Hugging yourself, massaging your forehead, rubbing your hands together, stroking your neck, can all feel good. In fact these kinds of self-soothing behaviours have been shown to slow heart rate and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Please keep other people’s boundaries in mind, of course, but maybe you’ll find opportunities in the next couple of days to add depth to your connections with others through the often-neglected power of touch?

It certainly appears to be working for M and I.

That’s “M+I,” of course. Not M and me.

What really stops you being on top of some things?

The people who really know about these things are pretty united in agreeing that what I call resourcefulness is one of six key strengths that can keep you and me psychologically strong.

More scientifically, psychologists label it “environmental mastery,” describing it as having the competence to meet the needs of your situation.

I do rather like the alternative term resourcefulness, however – defined in my dictionary as “the ability to find … ways to overcome difficulties.”

The phrase environmental mastery feels less clear to me.

For some reason I can’t help thinking of someone doing a rain dance or having the ability to put the brakes on global warming.

When I reflect on my own resourcefulness, I sense that I’m strong in some areas, but decidedly weaker in others.

Perhaps you’ll have a similar view of your own abilities?

Allow me to describe a couple of examples from my own experience, so you can see where I’m coming from.

Let’s begin with something I’m good at. Grocery shopping rarely seems a problem for me.

Although I couldn’t exactly rustle up a four-course dinner at the drop of a hat, my cupboards and fridge generally have the essentials in stock, which I top up seemingly effortlessly.

So we can check that cereal box.

What about my weaknesses, though?

Well, recently I’ve been struggling to put together what is effectively a slide presentation about the app I’m currently developing.

I’ve collected some of its content, but something is stopping me sitting down to actually do the work.

If it’s helpful – and it was to me – I recently thought about barriers and motivations in terms of my own resourcefulness.

A barrier is something that stops you finding a way to overcome a challenge, while a motivation is the carrot that drives you to action.

Like so many aspects of life, I think it’s all about balance.

There will always be barriers, just as there will always be motivations, but action only becomes relatively frictionless when one considerably outweighs the other.

I think my ease with grocery shopping is relatively easy to explain.

I enjoy food, and also like knowing I can provide it to someone who visits: so there’s my motivation.

The supposed barrier (remembering to go shopping, and actually doing it) is trivial in comparison.

My reluctance to tackle this slide presentation, however, is harder to get my head around.

The motivation seems reasonably straightforward.

When I have a presentation about the app’s potential, I can use it to persuade others to back it, hopefully, or work with me.

And this would be good.

What causes me to scratch my head, though, is when it comes to identifying the barriers.

It’s difficult for me to even think about this (let alone actually write about it, as I’m doing right now) but it’s possible I’m aware that when I finish the presentation I’m actually going to have to, you know, show it to someone.


And I think I’ve somehow got it into my subconscious that this ill-defined someone will be scary, intimidating, and hostile.

This is, of course, a catastrophically negative way for me to view things, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there may be more than a grain of truth to it.

So here’s what I’ve thought of doing.

In order to address this barrier, maybe I can reframe my motivation?

Instead of worrying about presenting my document to Elon Musk (just kidding, of course) how about agreeing with myself that I’ll share it with someone who could be helpful without also making me feel like Daniel in the lion’s den, or Lionel in the Dragon’s Den.

I could also commit to a specific date and time to share it.

To me (and only just now) this seems like it would be a useful strategy.

So, that’s me sorted out, then. Well, hopefully.

More importantly, maybe you’ll now identify a specific part of your own life, in which you’re not being quite as resourceful as you’d choose.

It could be helpful to begin by recognising a strength first, though, so you don’t get too disillusioned.

When you do focus on a specific weakness, one is a fine place to start – please don’t try to tackle your entire life in one complicated chunk.

Maybe have a think about what your real barrier is.

What’s truly stopping you achieving this action that you want, or need, to complete?

Once you have a clearer picture, it may be possible to create a new motivation, one that works better for you.

A simple example might be someone who wished to start going to the gym, but who identified that his barrier was being super self-conscious about feeling embarrassed and out of place when he went there (his imagination had told him that everyone else would be toned and trim, even though that’s almost certainly a misconception).

Resetting his motivation, however, might involve asking a friend if they’d join him on a long walk once a week, therefore combining exercise and good conversation, while also avoiding those imaginary lycra-clad gym bunnies.

Making the most of your life means managing your life (better).

How could you start making that happen?

Right, I think it’s time for me to ask the person who isn’t Elon Musk if he’ll agree to become my Mr. Motivator.

Whose life is it anyway?

Before we go anywhere today, I’d like you to pause for a minute or two.

Think back to a time in your life when you remember others having expectations of you.

Perhaps you felt they expected you to settle down and have a family?

Or maybe you can recall certain people expecting you to pursue some particular line of work?

Please just take a moment to recall whether you experienced any of these kinds of expectations.

If you did – what were they? Who held them?

+ + + + + + +

Okay, we’re back.

Maybe you recalled a specific incidence of doing something (or not doing it) largely because of perceived pressure from other people.

I know I do, and I have a theory that talking through my own situation might help cast some light on your own circumstances.

Almost exactly 39 years ago (it was August 7th, 1979) I returned home to the UK after a fabulously exciting and enriching year, living and studying in California.

I’d won a scholarship from Rotary International. It covered the costs of spending a year at art school, after I’d graduated with a science degree in the UK.

And what a brilliant year that was.

I took every class I could – graphic design, printmaking, video production, jewellery design, woodworking – you name it, I signed up for it.

Then, to cap it all, I spent the last few months of my visa’s duration working for a travelling funfair (a carnival, they call it in the US) experiencing the many delights of rural Northern California, while also picking up the down and dirty basics of selling as I ran my own sideshow.

In my video class, we programmed an early personal computer (a TRS-80) and I’ve since realised I lived less than 25 miles from where the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were just starting Apple Computer, a business that 39 years later is worth a trillion dollars.

I was living in a part of the world with huge potential, in so many ways.

Leaving California was a wrench but – well – my visa had expired, plus the Rotary people had asked that I visit some of their clubs back in Britain to talk about my experiences.

I was of course excited to see family and friends when I got back, and for a while I carried my California experience with me, although, along with my suntan it soon began to fade.

Please don’t get me wrong. I know I lived a full, and rich life back in the UK, with jobs in advertising, and the challenging fun of starting and running a London ad agency myself. I’m grateful.

But, as I’ve documented elsewhere, for 30 years I also struggled with depression, severe at times, not even asking for help until I was 50.

When I’ve talked with my Mum about my battles, she’s fairly sure that I began having these emotional health problems when I got back to the UK from California, at the age of 22.

Now, who knows if I might have been less affected if I’d stayed in the USA? Impossible to know, now.

It’s interesting, however, to reflect a little on why I didn’t.

In the thoughts I gathered before writing for you today, I noted that settling down back in the UK was probably what was expected of me, but I then added an “I felt” – “I think *I felt* that it was expected of me.”

Next, I asked myself three questions, and I’d encourage you to do the same about a perhaps parallel time in your own life:

1. Who do you believe expected a particular behaviour/decision from you?

2. Can you be absolutely certain that they really did expect it, or might you have jumped to a somewhat false conclusion? Did you maybe just think they expected it?

3. Lastly, if it actually was true that others genuinely did expect things of you, how much did that really matter?

In my own case, the people at Rotary did indeed expect me to return to the UK, but the truth is that my responsibilities to them were pretty much wrapped-up after just six months of talks at lunches, dinners, and conferences.

What about other people? Did they expect me to return to the UK?

Well, it’s not easy to know.

It would be nice to think that some had hoped I’d be back, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure any necessarily expected it.

To be honest, most would simply have wanted the best for me, hoping I’d do whatever was going to work for me.

For many years, though, I believe I laboured under the illusion that I was somehow doing what was expected of me.

But here’s the thing.

Not only was I probably wrong, it might well have played some part in over 30 years of on-and-off depression.

My study of psychological well-being now makes clear to me how important it is to – as far as possible – independently determine your own direction in life.

I don’t think this means taking a completely selfish selfish approach to living, nor of course that you should cast others aside.

But I’m totally certain it does mean avoiding situations in which you become “locked in,” solely because of what you perceive as others’ expectations – expectations which may in any case be entirely imaginary.

I’m sorry this hasn’t been one of my more light-hearted posts, and please let me reassure you that this isn’t in any way because I’m not feeling light of heart.

I am.

And, of course, five years ago I did eventually return to live in California, which is working out pretty well actually.

(It only took me 34 years.)

This subject, however, does seem sufficiently important and serious not to make jokes about.

I encourage you, therefore, to think a little on this matter in the next few days, please, maybe asking yourself those three questions above.

I know I, and other readers, would love to hear about any reflections they may lead you to have.

Thank you.

Put a little purpose in your step today.

Come on now, I wasn’t exactly dawdling this morning, in fact it felt as though I was walking rather briskly.

But the truth is, I was a mere tortoise in comparison to the hare who zoomed past me.

A tall gentleman, he was accompanied by no fewer than three dogs.

Although all were of different breeds, it was clear that none had exactly been blessed in the leg-length department, so somewhat comically they all raced along at the heel of their human, doing their level best to keep up with him.

Having just completed a month of dog-sitting for a Stanford friend myself, I empathised with this guy.

My guess was that he was exercising the animals before heading off to work – probably to do something important on the Stanford campus – so recognised that it was better for all concerned if he put some pep in his step.

Fail to do so, and you risk your dog(s) getting distracted by just about everything and anything.

Did someone say Squirrel?

It got me thinking about the way in which having a sense of life purpose makes a profound impact on our psychological well-being.

And as the researchers Ryff and Keyes showed in 1995, what they termed “eudaimonic living” (living a life that’s intentionally underpinned by six key aspects of psychological well-being) can actually boost physiological, as well as psychological, health.

Among other benefits it can strengthen your immune system, for example.

The thing is, though, I don’t think this sense of life purpose must necessarily be one huge, overarching mission.

It doesn’t mean you have to become a Buddhist monk or devote your whole life to mastering the ukelele.

I believe, instead, that we all benefit when we live our lives purposefully.

The man who raced past me this morning was almost certainly not a professional dog walker, nor, unless he’d left his robes at home, was he a Buddhist monk.

Frankly I saw no sign of a ukelele, either.

It was, however, clear that he was approaching his morning purposefully – maybe before getting down to his other, hopefully purpose-driven, work.

We all have days, sometimes months, when it may feel we’ve temporarily lost our sense of purpose, and when this happens it’s probably not sensible to hope that we’ll somehow find some giant sense of direction and meaning, when it’s taking every ounce of our energy to just get out of bed in the morning.

Better by far, perhaps, to aim to act more purposefully in daily activities, even little ones.

Taking a shower, for example, could be a humdrum routine.

Or you could approach it with a renewed sense of purpose.

Pop a towel in the tumble dryer so it’s warm and fluffy when you need it.

Take a radio into the bathroom to enjoy Handel’s Water Music, while you lather up with the scented shower gel that’s at the back of the cupboard.

Relish the sensation of drying your skin afterwards, taking a few seconds longer than might be strictly necessary.

Of course it’s fantastic if you do have some kind of mega-mission driving your life.

But I’m certain that adding a sense of purpose to normal, everyday tasks can be almost as good for us.

And of course it can be contagious, spreading ripple-like to those around us, and motivating us still further.

Just ask those low-slung doggies.