Posts

Episode 14: Is the workplace working? Psychologist Dr Celine Mullins on how teams and organisations can make the world of work a win-win for everyone involved

Episode 13: Caroline McMenamin, trail-blazing mental health advocate and therapist, on growing up with OCD, the importance of individual identity, Irish trans-generational trauma and redefining happiness

Episode 12: Self-styled Go Getter Girl Shinjini Das on the challenges of being a global entrepreneur as an ethnic minority woman, the merits of public speaking, and how to be an introverted social media influencer

The space between us

In this blog and in other writing, podcasts, interviews and talks, I’ve spoken a lot about conversation, and the need for honest conversation: conversation as a transaction, where honesty and vulnerability and compassion are offered fully on both sides.

One idea for a bigger project — a long blog? a book? a podcast series? — is all about conversation, a skill essential for happiness, balance, productivity and everything in between, but which is a skill that has become eroded by the increasingly isolated, dehumanized digital/virtual world we find ourselves in.

This became so apparent to me in one of my previous careers, where I was responsible for recruiting talented young journalists. These young professionals had come through school and university, many of them with high-class degrees, but the one thing which united them was their inability to hold a conversation. Invitations to pick up the phone — such a staple of the journalist’s trade — were routinely ignored as the routine became to text or email.

I have heard other talented business-people speak about their phobia of the phone, recounting occasions where after dialling a number to call someone, they implored the ringing to go to voicemail so they could avoid the conversation that might ensue.

Conversation is not easy. Honest conversation, where we dispense with the chitchat and small talk, is much more difficult still.

There’s a line in a Kevin Barry story, “Across the Rooftops”, from his blazingly brilliant collection Dark Lies the Island, which has now been adapted (sort of) for a pitch black movie of the same name (trailer here, more details here).

“Across the Rooftops” is about a post-party rooftop encounter between two late teens or young adults, who find themselves in each other’s company and on the cusp of growing up.

At one point, as the depth of the vital unspoken becomes clear, the narration goes,

We talked about everything except the space between us.

This goes on a lot in everyday conversations.

We talk about lots of stuff, but rarely about the important stuff.

It’s not easy to talk about the important stuff. It opens us up to fear and pain and judgment, and even, perhaps, humiliation and exile.

Navigating the space between us is a lifelong challenge. It will always be a challenge. But challenges are there to be taken on, and occasionally overcome.

If we approach the space between us with love and compassion and truth, even if we can’t find or don’t know the right words, then we have a chance of a beautiful moment.

Both of us.

 

 

 

Episode 11: A solo episode on the power of honest conversation, why the conversation is a two-way street, and speaking truth to bulls**t.

Advertising, noise, silence, and the responsibility to make ourselves heard

A hundred years ago, James Joyce made a newspaper ad salesman Leopold Bloom the central character of Ulysses, and the slogans and devices and well-worn tropes of advertising are a subtle theme through plenty of Joyce’s work.

But Joyce lived in an era where radio had just been invented, where moving pictures were only beginning to gain traction (indeed, he opened Ireland’s first cinema, the Volta, in 1909), where there was no television, no Internet, no social media, no culture of relentless and incessant interpersonal and brand-to-target-audience messaging.

What would he have made of today?

We live in a world that is distracted and noisy at an unprecedented level.

A report in 2017 estimated that Americans are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertising messages every single day.

Is it any wonder that our brains are so addled from all the mental sorting we need to do, at an unconscious level, to engage with, ignore or compartmentalize all those messages in a meaningful way?

Is it any wonder that so many of us are overwhelmed, overcome with a yearning to switch off, escape, experience the release of yoga stretches or meditation or a beach overlooking the ocean at sunset?

Most of us are trying to sell something.

We’re trying to sell something, because it helps our status at the company watercooler conversation or quarterly meeting.

We’re trying to sell something, because it makes us feel useful, and being useful makes us valuable, and being valuable gives us an income which keeps us warm and dry and safe and loved. (At the bottom of it all, we mostly want to be warm and dry and safe and loved.)

Most of us also are trying to avoid being sold to.

We’re trying to avoid being sold to because being sold to can expose us to feelings of being fooled, because all of us at some point have had our desires or lack of knowledge exploited by an unscrupulous salesperson.

We’re trying to avoid being sold to, because that experience, the experience of being fooled, erodes our self-respect, so the occasion of being sold to can unearth feelings of self-loathing.

When most of us are trying to sell something at the same time as we’re trying to avoid being sold to, it creates a world of noise and friction.

With so much noise besetting almost all of us, almost every minute of every day, it’s tempting to do anything but add to the noise.

With so much noise, it’s tempting to make our default response to keep quiet.

But what happens when we have something to say? Something important? Something that can make a change that people need? A change that really can make the world, or whatever small part of it that we can influence, a better place?

Our only viable option is the long game. The long game requires us to strike a fine balance.

To be careful about adding to the noise, but to speak up — wholeheartedly, with humility and integrity — when what’s most needed is someone to speak up.

(** This post, like all these posts, was written primarily for me. It’s a result of my own struggle with the world. The massive reluctance to add to the noise that besets us all versus the need to speak up about something that needs people to speak up: the challenge of being in the modern world. That is what my whole Life Well Lived project is all about. Navigating the challenges of the world, becoming our best selves and ultimately living in a way that day by day adds up to a life well lived, one of contribution, fulfilment and happiness. Thank you for being here. I hope my contributions offer something of value, and an escape from the noise. **)

 

The bright side of forgetting one’s headphones

I’m an audio geek.

I just love listening to things.

I’m talking listening to content – radio, podcasts, audiobooks, spoken word essays. When it comes to one-to-one human listening, I’m studying the art of active listening just now, which is a very different thing to the kind of listening most of us do on a daily basis.

Books have saved my life (honestly; I don’t feel I’m overstating that at all) and I’ve been won over by the Audible experience over the past two years, although I do have to have a pen and paper on hand for what I’m listening to to really stick, and I still much prefer the tangibility of real books.

I was always a radio lover, and have fond memories of late night and early morning radio with the soothing tunes and tones of one time RTE presenter Maxi.

In recent years, swayed by the endless choice and on demand quality offered by podcasts, I’ve moved more and more into the podcast listener experience, which in so many cases offers incredible production values and narrative verve, for free and whenever you want it.

So headphones have become an almost indispensable part of my clothing.

Phone, wallet, headphones.

When I run, I usually listen to podcasts on my headphones.

When I’m commuting to the city, I use my headphones on the way there and the way back (it can do a lot to ease the drudgery of hours spent crawling in city traffic jams).

I suspect I’m not alone in this headphone dependency. Almost everywhere I look, I see people plugged in, listening and watching their own radio and podcasts and audiobooks and TV series and Spotify playlists.

This morning, I forgot to bring my headphones. Left them on the cabinet inside the front door.

When I realised, five minutes down the road and rushing for a bus that is always on time, I experienced a moment of panic, knowing that I faced approximately four hours on buses today, and would not have the default option of headphones available to me.

As I write this, I’ve navigated the first 90 minute bus journey without headphones in maybe two years.

Here’s what’s happened so far.

  • I’ve been able to focus on reading my book without the compelling distraction of selecting from the infinitude of sounds available from my mobile device.
  • I experienced the serendipity of hearing a song I loved, playing at low, just-about-audible volume on the bus stereo.
  • I overheard some conversation at the little coffee place where I occasionally stop for an early morning bowl of porridge.

I heard the sounds of the world again.

Sounds that I’ve routinely been drowning out with my headphones.

Forgetting my headphones caused me a few moments of panic earlier, and I know that as this day progresses I will instinctively reach for them on a few occasions.

But I also know that I might notice things I would otherwise have missed.

And I know that being present to the world is to also be present to all the sights and sounds and tedium and wonder of it all.

And I decided to be grateful for the opportunity for new experiences provided by the simple, absent-minded act of forgetting one’s headphones.

Serendipity, mentorship, Russell Brand and Rich Roll

Serendipity struck again at the weekend. It’s bizarre to me how often things happen just when we most need them to happen.

On Sunday, after a quick grocery shopping sprint and obligatory sweet treat Sunday stop-off, my nine-year-old and I stuck our heads into the bookshop to pass half an hour until the parking ticket elapsed.

I caught sight of a slim hardback with the unmistakable face of Russell Brand.

Brand is someone who has interested me greatly for some time. I didn’t care much for his various trysts or dalliances (reading his writing since then, it seems neither did he) but the breadth of his intellect probably first caught my attention during a remarkable Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2013.

Since then, I’ve dipped into his book on recovery from his drug addictions, and when I saw his new book, entitled Mentors: How to Help and Be Helped, it spoke to me deeply and personally.

I have been grappling with the necessary challenge of mentorship over the past few months.

It has been a challenge on both sides of the coin: on the one hand my need for mentorship, and the requirement for me to erode my ego and pride to allow that to happen; on the other hand my calling to become a mentor for others, and the requirement for me to let go of my fears of being an imperfect role model or dispensing the wrong advice to the wrong person at the wrong time.

These fears are real, because everything’s on the line here.

But these fears must also be overcome, because my capacity to help others will be reduced to nothing if they’re not.

Listening to the latest Rich Roll podcast on the way into Dublin city on Monday morning, I realised with vivid clarity that Rich Roll has been mentoring me from afar these past two years or so.

Rich is an extreme endurance athlete, who follows a plant-based lifestyle, lives in California and formerly was a high-powered lawyer specialising in entertainment law.

I am none of those things.

I’m very proud that I managed two half-marathons last year and learned to swim. I’ve been trying to eat more plants, and mostly succeeding. I live in rural Ireland and I’ve been in court three times in my life and don’t have any aspirations to go back there anytime soon.

And yet there is so much about Rich Roll that I can look up to and aspire to follow.

He hit his rock bottom at 40 years old, when he realised he was overweight, out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs, and on a surefire path to an early grave.

I hit my rock bottom in my late 30s, when I realised that I was overweight (this came after several years of ridiculing the body mass index as phoney science, and a little quiet and gentle persuasion from a nutritionist); that I had struggled with self-worth issues for at least 25 years, which led to its inevitable financial chaos and regular bouts and deep depression; and that I was on a surefire path to several more decades of continued suffering, if an early grave did not intervene.

I’ve written about Rich’s two interviews with Dr Zach Bush (here and here), and his conversation with Guru Singh about depression, and I encourage you to give them a listen.

This piece is about Rich in general, though, not the contents of any particular show.

Rich has shown me paths and options that I would never previously have considered.

He has shown me another way to live life.

He has, at least in part, inspired me to start my own show, the Life Well Lived podcast, where I speak to guests every week about navigating the challenges of life and becoming our best selves in the world.

He has inspired me to consider my eating habits, and the interconnectedness of all our choices to our health and our environment.

He has, from his California base, led me to the Happy Pear boys Stephen and David Flynn, who just happen to live and work about an hour’s drive from my house, but who I’d never really paid any attention to before. (The Flynns, incidentally, or perhaps not incidentally at all, make an important cameo in the Russell Brand Mentors book…)

He has demonstrated that humility is no barrier to global impact.

Rich has become a mentor for me, from afar, through the wonder that is the Internet.

I think back to my 11-year-old self. It’s just 30 years ago, but it’s like another universe. I remember the amazement I felt when my mother might bring a kids magazine home with the weekly shopping, with stories and puzzles and the strange place-names of the United Kingdom, which was just a boat trip away but seemed so faraway and exotic.

Now, after what seems like just a few blinks of an eye down the road, I can find myself led and guided and inspired, every week, for free, by a man in California who I’ve never met.

And I know also that I can find such mentors in many places, in real life and on the Internet, if only I am open to the possibility that I can be helped and that they might be able to help me.

I’m thankful that for all the negativity on the Internet, and there is an unsurpassed amount of negativity, that it is also a conduit to making life better, for individuals and humanity as a whole, in ways that we are surely only beginning to consider.

(I’m thankful also to Conor Devine from Belfast, Ireland, who first alerted me to Rich Roll, and who is also on his own journey to transform and inspire the world. Read about Conor at his website here.)