False hope is futile

Hope is life-affirming, a longing for the particular that gives energy to go on despite struggle and disappointment.

Hope teaches the value of persistence when there are scant results and we doubt the worth of our efforts. We learn to value the process of working towards a goal, not just reaching it.

This is not blind hope, it’s hopefulness underpinned by hard work.

Many great accomplishments have been made this way, from dismantling segregation to life-changing scientific discoveries.

False hope

But false hope is deadly. It chains us to an outcome we hope for but cannot achieve.

It locks us into an idea – of a person, job, institution – that has little bearing on reality. We are seduced by the idea of what could be, instead of what is.

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The benefits & limits of attention & evidence

These seemingly contradictory, yet complementary insights may be of value –

  1. Pay no attention to what people say; but pay close attention to what people say.
  2. Focus on evidence; but don’t let evidence narrow your focus.

Attention

Pay no attention to what people say (when it contradicts what they do)

It’s easy to say – I am honest, I am good, I have values. In fact, it’s easy to say anything – just open your mouth. Doing so is a different ballgame but if you want to know who someone is, take a look.

For example –

  1. You can’t say you are loyal but have affairs, unless you have an explicit agreement with your partner that ‘loyalty’ includes having sex with other people. You can’t redefine what sex (or commitment or partnership or marriage for that matter) means for the purpose of squeezing yourself back into the loyal box. A one-night stand is still sex. An intermittent but ongoing romp with an old friend is still sex. Orchestrating a weekend away with a colleague even if both parties are married just for sex, is sex. Sex as a transaction is sex. If there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing in your mind, tell your partner so that they have information and can make an adult choice about whether they’re happy with that in their mind too. Otherwise call it what it is. Is it loyal? No it is disloyal. You can apply this to any quality you ascribe to yourself or others.
  2. You can’t claim to be trustworthy if on Monday you’re lobbying for better treatment of women but on Tuesday diminish working women as selfish and self-centred, argue human rights Wednesday but whip up the troops around anti-Semitism (add in any issue you like here) the next. Who is this person? No one knows. We can change our minds about what we believe over time but that’s not what chameleons are about. What else do they say that has no bearing on the way they live? Look at what you say and ask yourself – do you live by it? If not, why say it at all?

It may seem overly obvious to say these things but it is the primary human instinct to trust other people. Most of us believe what people say about who they are and it’s hard to shake early impressions, positive or negative. This is what makes political leanings or emotional beliefs about the existence of loaded beliefs like climate change so difficult to shift.

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Fault-finders

There’s a fine line between demanding people and fault-finders.

Demanding people bring out the best in us by showing us what worked and didn’t.

We may feel upset that a report we slaved over doesn’t meet expectations and keeps coming back. But the feedback enables us to see what worked and where we’ve made wrong assumptions, left things out or there are areas that can be strengthened. Not only do the insights improve the current report but they also provide a mechanism for review that improves our work in the long term. Every iteration is an improvement. This is constructive.

Picky people are a different beast. They’re not interested in what’s good and bad, what worked and did not they head straight for what’s wrong and focus on nothing else.

There are other ways to describe these types: nitpicking, fault-finding, carping, critical.

The picky can be parents, partners, colleagues, friends, ourselves. What they have in common is that no matter how hard you try or what you accomplish it is never enough. The subtext of course is that: nor are you.

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Busy is the new lazy

We’re all so busy; what we’re doing is very important too.

Strange then that ours is neither a culture of elite productivity nor meaningfulness.

That’s because most of the busyness is a hoax.

But we’ve built an altar to it.

You at least, must name it for what it is.

Often being busy is little more than a distraction.

Being busy forgives just about anything.

I am so busy I –

  • Forgot your birthday.
  • Was late for lunch.
  • Snapped when I got home at 8pm (I’m just so stressed).

Here are the proper names for those events – (more…)

 

How to accept diversity

How do we —

  1. Respect grassroots views without being held hostage to ignorance?
  2. Privilege a standpoint without slipping into elitism about whose views count?
  3. Accept the right for people to have a view if that view seems damaging?
  4. Value knowledge while accepting that what was once true we now know to be false but that creativity & scientific method matter.
  5. Become aware of, let alone challenge, personal assumptions, ideas, beliefs?

Sometimes we do so easily and at others with great difficulty.

But in relation to each of the five above we can —

  1. Accept we have prejudices we’re not aware of — desire to become more conscious — withstand the pressure to agree because it’s easier without condemning people for not sharing our views.
  2.   Place being humane above all else — drop the need to be right or better — admit how gut wrenching it feels when we’re wrong but also how humbling & human it makes us.
  3.  Say no. (“NO”)
  4.  Value knowledge without deifying it — remember that ideas predate data — value scientific method, strive for the right questions and measures but do not let the limit of current measures set the boundaries for your thinking — refuse to make experts into gods but value genuine expertise — accept the right for people to have a view, but be discerning about the quality of information behind them (not all views are equally well informed).
  5. Be insatiably curious — read constantly including from opposing views — the established and from the edges — process that through writing, painting, reflecting, talking, walking or what works for you — get external inputs without needing to accept or reject them — be willing to tolerate discomfort.

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What jealousy can teach you

We’re told that jealousy is bad and we should rise above it so people deny or suppress the feeling.

The problem? They are still jealous but now feel guilty and ashamed too and are no closer to understanding why the jealousy emerged or what they can do to manage the discomfort.

But if you really want to know what you value, then jealousy is a merciless guide.

Nothing cuts through the theoretical idea of what you think you value to what you actually value faster. Learning to read it is invaluable.

For example, tell me about a runner who broke the world record for the 100 meters and while I am glad for them I am otherwise unmoved. The same can be said for the Oscar winners, Grand Prix drivers, math geniuses, amazing business people or International Most Fabulous Persons Of All Time.

But mention a 20-year old novelist who has managed to shortcut the tortuous path to publishing and create an immediate best seller and that gets the heart pumping.

Why? Because my path to publishing has been long and at times tortuous. Apart from the published works I have 11 unpublished novels, umpteen plays and short stories in the drawer (of my Mac that is).

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Why loyalty is not always a virtue

We think of loyalty and fidelity as virtues and they can be.

But like any qualities they can turn on you. The terms are also frequently misapplied.

We need to ask – 

  • Is this the right word for what I am dealing with?
  • To whom or what am I loyal?  

Relationships in any arena bring the complexity of these questions into sharp relief.

Many bullies at work are not exposed because victims do not come forward, fearing retribution. This is not an unrealistic fear but anchored in real concern for job security and sometimes safety.

But it is not loyalty.

Those in abusive relationships can experience a bizarre loyalty to their persecutors. Although these dynamics are highly complex traumatic bonding is a well-documented survival technique. Many wo/men stay with abusive partners too long.

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Why deferring to ‘expertise’ can be dangerous

I was recently at a workshop where a participant introduced himself by listing his Ivy League credentials; while impressive, his doctorate was in a discipline unrelated to the discussion and the act was out of context.

Notwithstanding this, many people subsequently looked to him to lead or tacitly sought his approval when speaking.

What he had done was to anchor the group around his primacy as an intellect and limit challenges to his authority before they occurred.

These sorts of dynamics are damaging for everyone involved:

  1. People who resist questioning often need to appear right. In this way the need to be right is more important than the right information. Frequently a flag for insecurity, it keeps them stuck but also prevents the healthy debate needed to get measured outcomes.
  2. By automatically deferring to others we feel disempowered and inadvertently contribute to cultures of misinformation. However, more importantly from my perspective, we fail to exercise a faculty vital for development: critical thinking.

Understanding how people use anchoring as a form of control helps us better navigate discussions.

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Why all-or-nothing thinking can undermine your good

I was chatting to a friend recently who told me he could no longer be bothered with people, his choice, as far as he was concerned sooner or later everyone disappointed him.

With him you’re either totally out or you’re totally in, that’s just the type of guy he is.

But I could see that he was paying a price for this all-or-nothing thinking.

His ‘absolutism’ was reflected in the shrinking of his social life to his wife, daughter and the odd precariously positioned friend but also in the narrowing of his exposure to different world views.

I also wondered, given its ubiquity as a symptom of depression, whether there was more to his glum mood than he was letting on.

For him people were right or wrong, brilliant or idiots. There was little room in between.

So I asked him if he’d ever made a mistake.

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Don’t take it personally? (It’s personal)

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin.

One of the great self-development leaps we make that catapults us out of childhood and into being adult is when we realize we should not take things personally.

Apparently.

We get a rejection letter in response to the submission we sent – not personal.

In the past we used to throw ourselves on the couch, weeping and leaping to all sorts of conclusions about our self-worth (and the lack of it).

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Why being kind is more important than being right

 A part of kindness consists in loving people more than they deserve. Joseph Joubert

While we are supposedly more open to softness and emotion, the reality is that we still privilege disconnection.

What do I mean by this?

Simply that the hard-nosed, cut off and detached can be perceived as more capable and grown up than their more sensitive peers.

Although they are rarely more capable and grown up or in fact even hard-nosed, the image is revered and therefore, reinforced.

But it’s a myth. Underneath, we are all vulnerable.

This doesn’t mean we can’t manage emotions appropriately or make difficult decisions. We navigate complexity daily.

In fact studies show that survivors of abuse accept vulnerability as a way to build strength and authenticity.

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How to lead with optimism through uncertain times

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertaintyJacob Bronowski.

How can you lead with optimism given these difficult times?

The legacy of global financial mismanagement and the unresolved European debt crisis mean phrases like ‘economic collapse’ are brandished about, clubbing into us the fear (or reality) of job cuts, foreclosures and other terrors.

Last year there were race riots in Britain, apocalyptic floods in Brazil and Thailand and in Tunisia a fruit seller set himself and the Arab world alight when his protest spurred the dismantling of dictatorships in Tunisia, Jordon, Egypt and Libya.

As I write the ever-ticking worldometer tells me there have been 100 million births and 43 million deaths since the new year stared and in the last 24 hours writers published over 3 million blogs, a statistic that will be outdated by the time you read this.

With such interminable disruption and the accelerating speed at which we know about it, it’s no wonder many of us feel afraid or at the very least, anxious.

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Should leaders make others happy?

Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult. Warren G. Bennis

I was recently part of a discussion where it was put that people perform better uplifted and leaders were responsible for the happiness of their teams.

The underpinning philosophy: positivity activates the heart.

This did not sit well with me.

While I believe we need to be emotionally aware, to be positive all the time is inauthentic.

We go up and down, veering from anger to joy and every emotion in between and that is natural.

What we do with those emotions though, is critical.

We need to be aware that our mood impacts others (although how they respond is largely up to them) and deal with our feelings rather than taking them out on the people around us.

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The need always to be right, is wrong

The need to be right is the sign of a vulgar mind. Albert Camus.

Last time I wrote about the need to value expertise, without deferring to it.

This is amongst other things because knowledge is not static and experts disagree, although often off a higher base.

And while I don’t like the way some people use their credentials as weapons to anchor others, knowledge is gold.

Specialists exist in every field; people know more or less about certain topics. Facts have weight.

And yet how frequently we argue without them.

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Value expertise but don’t defer

I was at a workshop where a man introduced himself like this: when I did my doctorate at Insert Ivy League University Here.

Now there’s nothing wrong with establishing credentials in particular when they are relevant to the discussion, which in this case they were not.

What he had done was to anchor the rest of the group around his primacy as an intellect, which he certainly was. Without needing to say it directly, he had sent a signal that his views were ipso facto going to be better and to disagree with him if you dared .

Many subsequently and unconsciously looked to him to lead. Those who dared speak cast glances in his direction, tacitly seeking his approval.

This is how individually and collectively we agree to defer and give away power.

People anchor others in many ways, sometimes overtly (which makes it easier to detect) but often subtly.

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Disagreement is not disloyalty

It may seem counterintuitive but formal processes are not a panacea for good governance; post-mortems of Enron and WorldCom, or closer to home Centro, reinforce that these companies failed despite entrenched controls.

What leaders can learn from these high profile failures it that risk-taking is a cultural issue and that with respect to decision-making, a culture that encourages independence and debate is an asset.

Yet in many companies, disagreement continues to be seen as disloyalty.

Worse, as in the case of Enron, active collusion can be seen as a precondition for maintaining a seat at the table.

In his book Innovation Corrupted: The Origins and Legacy of Enron’s Collapse, Harvard Business School Emeritus Professor Malcolm S Salter highlights sophisticated internal controls failed to impact the behaviour that led to Enron’s demise.

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4 tips for being a ‘learner’ not a ‘mistake-avoider’

We learn by failing, iff failing means not getting things right all of the time.

Whether it’s those first steps, our running style or scientific discoveries that come only after trials are ditched and techniques refined, learning is process.

We are not built for perfection.

Experiments have conclusively shown that we are hard-wired to think in ways that may help us survive, but are innately flawed and that we shape realities on shaky foundations and false evidence as visual illusions show.

Even where there are no apparent flaws, we are born into cultures that define value relative to colour, creed and sex (to name but a few) and so a healthy, thinking wo/man can as easily become an enemy of the state if the circumstances allow.

So why I ask myself, has perfection become an acceptable goal? And why do we let it define our value?

We want the perfect body, partner, boss or job, a Vogue house, ideal parents, faultless kids, it seems there’s no end to our list (or lust) to achieve it.

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In tough times take the wheel

There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet. Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot)

 

I was talking to a friend this week about a situation in which he feels powerless in the face of change.

He was ‘waiting’ for an outcome about his future in the volatile manufacturing sector that was making him increasingly anxious and he was struggling to stay engaged. At times, he admitted, he felt depressed.

Waiting for what I asked?
Fate? Providence? Godot?

The difficulty with waiting for something to determine what happens to you is that it makes you feel less an adult than a child.

Your ‘locus of control’ (or the extent to which you believe you impact life) is farmed out to something beyond your self rather than remaining inside.

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What values drive you?

Whatever we think we are, or say we are; our own and others’ perceptions largely result from: what we do.

Of course, we are not wholly defined by behaviours nor should we be.

Sometimes life demands we reveal only a sanctioned side of ourselves, such as in an oppressive regime or unsafe family/relationships where it is prudent to keep parts tucked away.

We’ve probably all been in states at some time or another where we’ve acted ‘out of character’. A normally loving parent may lose their temper, a trusted colleague unable to hold their ground might kowtow to a decision they do not like, a partner forget to call the other to advise of a change of plan.

But the very expression suggests that these are anomalous events that do not reflect the way we normally behave. Want to know what truly drives someone? Listen to the words but pay acute attention to the patterns that appear in their lives. These are the shape of accumulated choices, some deliberate, others not, and a powerful narrative.

It’s also important to recognize that how we behave is in part situational.

Emotionally aware people know that different times call for different styles. We may need to be tough in driving a legal outcome but empathetic delivering bad news or responding to someone’s pain. This does not lead us away from the core, on the contrary, values act as an anchor from which we extend our reach into the world.

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Frank advice: can you take what you give?

The fact that you needed to know was not known at the time that the now known need to know was known… and therefore there was no authority for the authority to be informed because the need to know was not, at that time, known or needed. (Bernard in Yes Minister, Episode 8). 

Yes Minister is a brilliant TV satire that pits the conflicting desires of numerous players in the British government against each other. The battle of wills between bureaucrats, staffers and the political incumbent generates much humour and head nodding on our parts.

Inevitably though as reform goes head to head with perks, prestige and pragmatism only one winner emerges; as reflected in the trademark closer of the go-between who predictably defers with the obsequious: yes Minister.

But it’s not a show about politics as much as life, which is why we relate so readily to the power and control dynamics.

These games are played all the time in our professional and personal lives.

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The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive

The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive. Where is emotion ‘kept’ such that we could disentangle from it?

Emotions are complex biochemical events triggered by and that trigger internal and external reactions. There’s some evidence that specific molecules regulate certain emotions – oxytocin with empathy, serotonin with happiness  – although this is an emerging field and we really don’t know enough.

But its a long outdated idea that thoughts and feelings float about separate from the body – they are embodied within it.

Many psychologies, philosophies and spiritualities teach that emotion is inferior to reason, but the idea of pure reason is a myth and not one I believe we should aspire to. The fetishisation of reason is damaging, people waste energy trying not to feel.

Being emotional doesn’t mean having unbridled outbursts. That’s childish. We can learn to control impulses and live respectfully amongst others.

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