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How to find your own “true north”

The North Star, or finding one’s “true north”, is a concept that has come up a number of times in my reading and viewing in recent weeks.

Two examples that come immediately to mind:

1. The Financial Times’ North Star

Responding to the suggestions of a couple of friends who I asked for suggestions as to how I might understand the way money and finance works, I’ve been reading more of the Financial Times.

To be clear, I’ve never ever been a money and finance type of fella. For a long time, I confess, I told myself a story that the people who deeply understand money and finance were over there, and me and everyone else were over here. This is plainly rubbish.

There is an onus on all of us, no matter what stage of life we’re at, no matter how much or how little we might have, to educate ourselves about money and finance. I was never going to invest in the full Financial Times experience, so I decided to order the FT Weekend from my friendly local newsagent.

A month in, the €4 weekly outlay is among the best things I spend each week.

The biggest surprise is that it’s not all about money: for example, there is a weekly feature called “Lunch with the FT”, which is a long interview with an interesting someone around the world. The Life & Arts section is as good as any supplement I’ve seen in any newspaper. The quality of the journalism is extremely high, and you can tell that the writers have been given time and assistance to get to the heart of their stories. The finance world is always hovering around the periphery, but it’s not all markets and share prices and interest rates. Far from it. It’s great. Anyway, back to the concept of “true north”.

As I was paying attention to the FT, I noticed an online Q&A with a couple of their senior digital team members recently. And as a lot of my day to day is helping businesses use the Internet better to make their impact bigger, I decided to check it out. They spoke passionately about their “true north” as a business, and how that has changed in recent years. Having been guided in the past by things like “visitor numbers” and “engagement rates”, they now talk about “lifetime value” as the organisation’s new north star, which is all about how much value they get from and deliver to their customers over the long term.

2. Khe Hy and the Productivity Expert’s “True North”

Over the past few months of coronavirus business impact, there has been an opportunity to reflect on certain things and maybe do them a little differently.

One thing that kept coming up for me is how almost all of my day to day business (things to do, ideas to explore, emails to follow up on or reply to, reports to run, projects to manage) existed somewhere between my head and notes documents on my computer. Too much of it was in my head. So I recently set about trying to get everything that was in my head out of it, and into a system that might help me do things better, quicker and more cost-effectively for me and my customers.

During this I stumbled across the work of a guy in the US called Khe Hy. He’s a productivity expert, who works from the David Allen “Getting Things Done” methodology (Allen’s GTD book has been one of the best-selling business and productivity books of the past several decades.)

And Khe talks about the idea of finding your “true north”. Specifically, he writes about the merits of any given task and why many of us sign up for new tools and tricks and courses in the hope that they will solve things that, for the most part, only self-reflection and behaviour change can really solve. The concept of “true north” is a vital one, as he says in an article about email tools:

Why do you do what you do?
What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?
Where do you find flow?
Where does work become effortless?
These are thorny and prickly questions that require a lifetime’s worth of contemplation. It’s very tempting to believe that a new tool can help unpack these questions. They can’t.

These two examples — one about a global media organisation with several thousand employees, the other about a very personal relationship with what we want to do — are very different. But there is a lot of crossover.

That’s the thing about having a “true north”. It places everything else in the world in relation to it.

Because the true north of the Financial Times is clear to everyone who works on the team, the place of everything else in relation to that goal is also clear.

And because one person (you, me or Khe Hy) thinks about true north and how it relates to their daily task list, everything else that tries to muscle its way onto the to-do list is clear.

Things become important not because of how urgent it is (which is common) or because of how loudly someone asks for it (which is even more common), but because of how they relate to our “true north” — the one guiding beacon that gives us a deeper understanding of where all other tasks sit.

So, where are you on the journey?

The journey towards one’s “true north” is not a simple one. It often takes months or even years of self-reflection.

And it’s clear from the research that self-reflection is hard. Many people might be familiar with the quotation from the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal which goes:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

If this is true, and I suspect there’s a lot of truth to it, then the opposite must also be true. If the problems stem from the inability, then the way to solve or overcome the problems stem from the ability: the ability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Sitting quietly in a room alone can help you find your true north.

Sitting quietly in a room alone is hard, but it’s necessary. Even if it’s only for five minutes.

Sitting quietly in a room alone does not mean a free house with Netflix for company.

And it doesn’t mean sitting alone with a book, no matter how much the book might help you reflect in the future. (Books are essential, so don’t get me wrong. They can assist greatly on the self-reflection journey, but the time alone comes before or after the reading.)

How to sit quietly in a room alone

1. Daydreaming

Daydreaming is a hugely underrated activity. Back when I was in school, the daydreamer was one of the worst things you could be. If you were gazing out the window, you were liable to get hit on the side of the head by a well-aimed piece of chalk from a teacher who wanted your attention above all else.

But daydreaming can be hugely fruitful.

Your mind is a thought factory. You might have 100,000 thoughts a day. Allowing thoughts just to flow — without adding to task lists, without the need for decisions, without allowing them to surface forgotten commitments (and all the difficulties that forgotten commitments or open loops entail) — is a skill that can be practised.

Having something to look at, and remembering that awareness and presence are your friends, is a great way to start.

Sit, look out a window, notice what you notice, and notice where your mind goes with that.

2. Journalling

While reading is a “reactive mind” activity, journaling (or any type of writing in general) is very much “active mind”.

It’s also active mind in a reflective way that can be hugely valuable for the way we see ourselves.

Journalling can be gratitude tallying, habit tracking, day or week planning, old-style diary entries or freestyle thoughts-to-paper.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters are two things: the intention to be self-reflective, and the activity itself.

There is a type of natural treatment for anxiety and depression disorders called “earthing”. It’s a fancy name for grounding, and it involves touching the earth with our bodies, and the benefits appear to come from the countless invisible protons and electrons that come from the earth, and bringing them into contact with our own bodies through the skin. (There’s a whole stream of Instagram posts related to this, and plenty of science on earthing too.)

Journalling is, I believe, a variation of this.

Paper comes from the remains of trees. There is, literally, a million years of earth in a little notebook you carry in your hand. (This is why paper quality is not just an aesthetic thing; paper quality owes much to the production process, and those systems that are more faithful to the raw material produce a quality that retains more of the carbon from the earth, and from there to offer benefits to your health. In a similar way, real books offer more physical benefits for you than ebooks and all their electronically charged technologies.)

3. Breathing

Breath work is one of the cornerstones of mindfulness meditation. But even without the meditation, the breath work still offers benefits of its own.

Bringing the focus back to the rise and fall of your chest, and how air enters and leaves your lungs, is an investment in the best of being present.

The main thing that makes you and I different from all those who have lived and died is that we, right now, are still breathing.

You and I, we have no idea when this gift will stop. The only thing we can know for certain in this world is that one day, we will stop breathing, and then all our physical consciousness will disappear.

We don’t know what’s next, for our souls, our spirits or our consciousnesses. We can’t know, and that’s okay.

What we do know for sure is that one day, we will no longer possess the ability to breathe, and life as we know it will stop.

Sitting quietly in a room alone, and just breathing, invariably brings us back to the present.


“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

— Alice in Wonderland

These activities, practised repeatedly, will slowly, steadily and over time reveal your true north to you.

Like the Financial Times business analysts, or any productivity evangelist, your systems and priorities and preferences will change as you grow. So will your true north.

And that’s the point.

Your true north, and mine, become apparent when we bring our awareness back to the present moment.

All our memories and regrets, or hopes and fears, fade away to a lesser importance when we look around us and notice things.

We notice the beauty of the ordinary moment that is available to us right now, and we realise that this beauty is available to us all the time, whenever we choose to pay attention to it.

It is from time in these moments that the direction we must take, the direction that is unique to all of us — our own individual “true north” — will, slowly over time or suddenly one day in one flashing moment, reveal itself to us.

And if we are paying attention, we will see it exactly for what it is.

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Concrete and plastic

There is virtually no end to man’s ingenuity. In the past 100 years, science and technology has taken us far into space, has brought every place in the world so close that almost everywhere can be reached within 24 hours or so, has fashioned communications tools that allow ideas to spread almost at the speed of light.

Concrete and plastic are two such inventions that have, literally, changed the world, have transformed our experience of the world.

The first concrete high-rise building was constructed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1904, before perhaps the most recognisable concrete structure, the Hoover Dam, was built in the mid-1930s.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, the development of synthetic plastics — among them polystyrene, polyethylene, polyester, and the trade name Nylon — overhauled virtually everything about the world we live in.

This blog not about the environmental effects of these constructs. (For that, see “Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth” (Guardian)”,  and “We Made Plastic. We Depend On It. Now We’re Drowning In It.” (National Geographic))

This blog is about the barrier they present to human groundedness.

Being grounded is, I suggest, a core ingredient in human happiness.

From the benefits of plant-based food to green exercise (defined as exercising in natural environment) to James Lovelock’s controversial / compelling Gaia hypothesis to the simple merits of just going barefoot on bare ground, a connection with the ground beneath us is, I firmly believe, fundamental to restoring calm, finding peace of mind and ultimately living a happy life.

For so many of us, particularly in the increasingly urbanised, commuter-belt world of western civilisation, a connection with the ground beneath us is less common and more precious than it’s ever been.

A quick walk in a city park at lunchtime is much better than nothing, but it’s no comparison to three hours in the wilderness at the weekend.

Our time outdoors, our stolen evenings on the beach at sunset, our weekend trip to a precariously underfunded national park — often we treat all this as a luxury, a nice moment after the essential parts of our days and weeks are taken care of.

But what if we choose instead to look at these moments not as occasional luxuries but as some of the most essential moments in our lives, and all the other day to day responsibilities can slot in around them?

Time spent outdoors, away from the concrete and plastic and exposed to the ground beneath our feet, is a small investment we can cash in for the rest of our lives.


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The Money Series, #1: Reframing the language of too much

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the last 2.x years of self-exploration, rebirth and expansion, it’s this.

We are, all of us, uniquely, breath-takingly different, and there’s a heartstopping wonder in the unparalleled uniqueness of our individuality.

And we are, all of us, so similar too; we share a need to be heard, and a need to be accepted, and a need to be loved, and we share deep truths, truths that go to the heart of each of us and to the heart of humanity.

[Yes, I know, that is two things.]

Things that are complex can be boiled down to simple facts. Things that are simple can uncover layers and layers of complexity. Between the black and the white there are a million shades of grey. The opposite of every profound truth is another profound truth.

But enough of the idle philosophy.

Instead let me get straight to the essential point, which is about one of the simplest and yet most complex things on earth: money.

Money, as in how it works.

Money, as in how it flows.

Money, as in our relationship to it.

Money, as in what it means.

Money, as a belief system.

Money, as in what it’s becoming, a technological phenomenon that will find itself out of the reach and perhaps even out of the understanding of banks and governments.

A blog series about money: what it is, how it works and how we relate to it

This is the first in a possible series of articles about money, written by someone who knows only how much he doesn’t know about money, someone who in the past struggled to earn good money, was unable to talk about it, rarely saved it, never invested it, and typically splurged it whenever he found himself in possession of it.

Let me start in the middle, the here and now, because the past is too big an assignment at the moment and who knows what’s going to happen next.

The here and now, today, is early autumn in the east of Ireland, a few yards from a four-lane motorway (paid for at least in part, I assume, by European Union grants), from a newly-built Applegreen service station (paid for at least in part, I assume, by venture capitalists), sipping a coffee (paid for by me with €2.60 of my money), and logging into a public wifi (paid for by me with my personal data).

I’m listening to Spotify (not paid for, although the ads are close to succeeding, primarily because I hate the ads so much, which I suppose is the point), and one of my favourite playlists (“Writing Music.”) by Holly Glenn Whitaker (earns living as: CEO of The Temper, sobriety coach, teacher, writer, speaker, podcaster and Kundalini yoga and mediation instructor, amongst other stuff; followers on Instagram: 69,000; Twitter: 2,000; Medium: 194; Value to the world: Unquantifiable).

A little about me

Perhaps it’s your first time here, and perhaps you’re wondering at this point whether this is worth sticking with this (“It is!” / “I’m biased!”).

If so, allow me a very brief introduction by way of a one-sentence bio, and a one-sentence mission statement.

One-sentence bio: I’m a writer, speaker, life and business coach, podcaster, thinker, believer, doubter and former cynic.

One-sentence mission statement: I run the Life Well Lived Project, which is just finding its feet (so far it’s a podcast, and a series of regular free emails) and its mission is to provide support, guidance and inspiration so that people everywhere can explore, embrace and express the unparalleled wonder of their own individuality and discover a life of new energy, purpose and fulfilment.

[Bonus third sentence: I believe happiness is the driver of almost every decision we make, but for the most part we’re defining happiness wrong, and the redefinition of happiness as a combination of joy and presence now and peace and fulfilment over a lifetime is my life’s work, and for all that I love American values and American energy, I blame the f***ing American constitution for the grave misunderstanding of happiness as something that needs to be pursued, a misunderstanding which has made us hustle and grind and accumulate and horde, mostly because what we’re most afraid of is finding ourselves in a place far in the future where we’re not heard, not accepted and not loved, and all the stuff and trappings we’ve variously accumulated over a lifetime of accumulating might be some sort of balm against the overpowering loneliness.]

But let’s come back to the here and now.

Thinking about the way we think about money

I’m thinking about money.

Or rather, I’m thinking about the way I think about money.

For a long, long time, whenever I thought about money, my defaults were “I don’t have enough” and “That is too much.”

And it turns out that the jump from “I don’t have enough” to “I am not enough” is not a very big one at all.

And when this seeps into all the little brain synapses and neurological pathways, and resides there as the months pass into years and the years whizz into decades, and crackles back into life whenever a $ or £ or € hovers into view, like the world’s most invincible zombie that lives inside your head, well, the effects can be pretty damn big.

By pretty damn big I mean almost everything bad: frustration, resentment, fury, anger, hatred, loathing, withering cynicism, addiction to any self-defeating activity, actual self-harm (wilful or otherwise), violence against others and suicide.

All in all, not good.

But I’m experimenting with something.

An admonition

Last week I was encouraged to reframe my language. Encouraged is a friendly word for the way it was communicated. This encouragement/advice/admonition was nothing new or unexpected to me. I first became fully aware of my default negative tendencies about two years ago.

I used to joke that whereas some people are glass half full people, and some people are glass half empty people, I belong to a third set that doesn’t care how much is in the glass because it’s probably poison. So ingrained was this way of thinking, I think I might actually have made this joke in my short speech at my wedding. But of course, it was only partly a joke. Like all decent jokes, it touched on a deep truth. My deep truth was that in any given situation, I saw no possible upsides and many possible downsides, and included in the downsides I saw was the one that admitted that there were multiple possible downsides I hadn’t considered, because things can always get much worse than we think.

The inverse law of attraction

I thought this level of cynicism was a bulwark against the worst that life could throw at me, but woah I was so wrong. When you expect crap, you get so much more of it than you really expect. [Example: I believe deep down that when I find my way to a plaza in any strange city, there’s always going to be one crackpot somewhere close, and amongst the throngs the crackpot will seek me out like the crackpot heat-seeking missile he is. And it’s always a “he”.]

Perhaps all this is prudence and realism. Perhaps it’s a defence mechanism. Perhaps it’s fixed mindset. Perhaps it’s the law of attraction working in reverse.

Whatever it is, I decided a while back that I’d had enough of it, and when I was encouraged anew to consider the default way I was using language, I decided to try a conscious experiment. To snap out of negative thinking, and where better place to start than the thing that’s been my ever present negative thought companion since I was about six years old.

Money.

But you’d be forgiven for shouting “enough of the carefully constructed sentences [thank you for noticing!] and ditch the flowery language [ah…] what does this mean in practice?”

Here goes.

Invariably, I attach negative meaning to the price tag on almost everything.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

When I see a pair of well-cut jeans with a €130 tag, I balk. “I could never justify spending that much money on a pair of jeans! Who does that?!?”

When I see a pair of good-looking jeans in a discount clothing store with a €13 label, I balk. “Clearly these jeans are of shoddy quality and the colour will run from the denim by the first wash and the waistband will expand by the second. And anyway, surely poor kids are being exploited in Bangladeshi sweatshops to get these jeans to me in Ireland for a price as ludicrously low as this, never mind the carbon footprint they’re leaving behind, and I want no part in any of that.”

This works across the board.

Conference tickets:

  • €50: “Well, clearly I’m the product and they’re going to try to upsell me something by pulling some emotional strings NLP shit about things that self-respecting men do, and any decision I make from there will be one I regret.”
  • €500: “It’s a two-day conference! How can they justify that? They might get 1000 people in the door. That’s 500 grand! Surely they’d have the hotel for a fraction of that. Somebody’s making a lot of dough in this transaction and it isn’t me.”

Coffee:

  • €2: “What’s wrong with it?”
  • €5: “What’s wrong with me?”

Food:

  • €6 for a spice bag. “Deep-fried in oil, and I’m paying for my own future heart attack in instalments like this.”
  • €16 for a vegan beetroot and bean burger and three large helpings of delicious and nutritious salads. “I’m sure I could make this at home for a third of the price.”

A practical thought experiment about money

So here’s what I’m starting to do, or trying to start to do.

I’m trying to deploy some techniques I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy, and catch my thoughts when the negative associations about money pop into my head. [It’s a substantial job and I wonder if I can find a VA for it, but I’d probably balk at the hourly rate…]

The easiest way I’ve found so far is to force a polar opposite thought to the front of my mind.

When the thought “It’s too much” comes into my head, I’m forcing myself to think “It’s great value”, and see how this affects things.

So far it’s threatening to be transformative.

And as I have aspirations of a six-figure-plus annual income for the next 30 years of my life, and because I fully believe that those aspirations are not at all unrealistic (especially once I can add value to others at scale over the magic of the Internet — thanks Applegreen!), and because that breaks down at approximately €60 per hour of my time given a typical working year, then things can suddenly become look beautifully different.

That €1200 for a family weekend trip to Florence in Italy is no longer unjustifiable because of all the little jobs-to-be-done, but becomes astonishing value, almost unquantifiable as an investment in the continuing development and lifelong memories of our two young children, as an investment in my marriage to a gracious, patient, beautiful woman who put up with me through all the years of torment, as an investment in the expansion of my own mind.

That €2500 for a ride-on lawnmower  is no longer ludicrous, but an investment in feeling great, saving time and avoiding the hassle of endless repairs of the little overworked push Honda.

It’s not to say there are no downsides to this, of course. Seeing every big expense as a valuable investment and acting accordingly is likely a one-way trip to financial bankruptcy.

But equally, occupying the other end of the extreme, as I have for so long and as I expect many people do without even considering that they’re doing it, is a one-way trip to emotional and psychological bankruptcy.

And the latter of those two outcomes might just be the more difficult to shed — particularly as it usually comes with dire financial consequences too.

Don’t miss the rest of The Money Series

I’m not sure when I’ll write another one of these. I know I will, but I don’t know when. I’m pretty good at “will” but not so good at “when”. Would you like to get notified of any future posts in this money series? The best place is to go here and sign up for my regular emails, which will include pointers to future blog posts like this and also updates on podcasts, other writings, events and all the developments of the Life Well Lived Project. If you’d like to get in touch on social media, I’m most active on Twitter here.

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Fear, technology and politics, and what the hell we might do about it

Fear is, of course, one of the most basic of human instincts, but the way it has been engineered by technology and politics for the powerful and the greedy threatens humanity itself.

At a primal level fear is a basic requirement for survival: the need to sustain ourselves through food, shelter, defence systems and reproduction. Anything that endangers these basic needs creates fear, and that fear creates responses in all of us (fight, flight, freeze etc.)

In 2019 in the western world, though, for the vast majority of us our basic needs are not only met but oversupplied.

This doesn’t mean that fear is removed, however. We are fundamentally hardwired to feel fear, because fear (or the responses which fear creates in us) protects and sustains us. Our brain being hardwired for fear as the most basic survival mechanism, it creates fear in us from the environments we routinely surround ourselves in now, which are completely unrecognisable not only from a hundred thousand years ago, but completely unrecognisable even from 5 or 10 years back. In the past 100,000 years, while the environments we have created around us have been totally transformed, how much have humans really changed physiologically? Not much at all, it seems.

The maneuvrings in Boris Johnson’s UK government are a potentially deadly combination of individuals characterised by callousness or cluelessness or both

The fear that we feel, an instinctive species reaction deep in the amygdala of our brains, and moving from there to some form of conscious thought in our neocortex, is at once so old—as old as life gets—and at the same time so new to the 21st century.

So what most creates fear in us now, in the today of 2019?

Both individually and collectively, it is generated as much as anything by the way the world is.

Or to put that more accurately, by the way the world is presented to us, through the Internet-connected devices that—from nowhere, over the course of a dozen years or so—have suddenly become so central to the way we do everything.

We open up Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever else we’re into [a global digital report published in January this year found that on average we have 8.9 social media accounts per person], and we do so, all of us, for more than two hours a day [same report: two hours and 16 minutes per day of social media use by every person, globally].

And what are we seeing in those 136 minutes we spend on social media every day?

We are exposed, for the most part, to whatever is presented to us by the algorithm that knows us deeper than anyone in the world, even ourselves.

As Richard Seymour, the author of a new book about social media called The Twittering Machine, described it in a recent interview with Ken Early on the Second Captains podcast, for hours every day we are both writing and being written: we are writing in that we are publishing our own status updates, videos, stories and shares; and we are being written in that everything we see (and in the future, perhaps, everything we think and everything we do), is being dictated to us and for us by millions upon millions of lines of written code, carefully constructed to learn how we might respond to any given piece of content, and present us with choices based on that mass analysis.

So the algorithms know us better than we could ever hope to know ourselves. In a world increasingly influenced by social media—where Facebook, through its own platform and its multi-billion-dollar takeovers of Instagram, WhatsApp and other tools, is held to be accountable for everything from the 2016 US election result to the Brexit vote to mass ethnic cleansing in Myanmar —the algorithm is the most powerful of all constructs, and the people who create it are the all-seeing, all-powerful Greek Gods of the 21st century.

Fear, technology and politics: All human emotions -- except, of course, fear itself -- are distilled into the Facebook Like button

The full list of main human emotions — except, of course, fear itself — are distilled into a set of emojis within the Facebook Like button

And because the algorithms are designed to measure our responses, whether that’s a response of joy or one of anger, we are shown things that are more likely to generate some response.

This is why any scan of a typical Facebook news feed is as likely to show a cute cuddly cat video, “hilarious” meme or inspirational 40-second clip, alongside the big news stories of the day reduced to preferably sensationalist short clips and video and sound bites that stir emotional reaction but allow no room for any nuance or depth.

Before I get completely lost in the weeds here, you can be forgiven for asking: what has all this got to do with our happiness?

In short, I think, almost everything.

I’ve often quoted Kevin Barry, the Irish writer, who has said, “The Internet is an infinitude: it contains the best and worst of everything.”

The problem as I see it now, however, is that while it still contains the best and the worst of everything, we see or are shown little of the everything in the middle. We see no grey areas, only black and white. We see no detailed discussion over complex issues, only sensational bluster that appeals to the extremes at the far either end of the spectrum.

We see the feel-the-fear worst of everything most of the time, and the feelgood best of everything occasionally, and so many of us cannot help to judge our own mundane everyday existences as tedious at best, and unbearable and unlivable at worst.

While the opportunities created by technology are beautiful and must be maintained, developed and explored, the development of the algorithms for pure profit by capitalising on complex human emotion threatens everything that’s good.

Social media was built on the base human need for connection with other humans, but it has for the most part succeeded in eroding our attention spans, robbing us of the ability to think at length about any particular subject, and moved us around like pawns in a global game where the short-term winners are a handful of billionaire capitalists and the long-term losers are everyone, the entire population of the world, who if things continue on the current path will be stripped of their ability to be, think or act in a way that’s required for basic human self-awareness, self-expression and self-actualisation.

Real World Wall-E

In many ways we’re so close to becoming the people of Wall-E , chronically obese, carted around on self-driving seats with screens in our faces and junk food in our mouth.

The more we become locked into our phones, the less we will see of the real world, and in many ways we’re so close to becoming the people of Wall-E , chronically obese, carted around on self-driving seats with screens in our faces and junk food in our mouth.

What we have in front of us is, on the face of it, an incredible, unprecedented set of opportunities, among them:

  1. the possibility that we can reach people all over the world, virtually instantaneously, and virtually for free, provided we have a message that resonates;
  2. the ability to navigate roads we’ve never travelled on with up-to-the-second information about destination, time required and traffic or obstacles ahead;
  3. the never-before-seen chance to build personal and professional lives that are not tied to the 20-mile radius from your front door, and which can find friendships, audiences and customers all over the world, in real time.

On the other side of that opportunity, though, there is the overwhelm that comes from this new technological norm, which has been specifically designed—using devices and mechanisms that have long been in place in casinos and online gaming rooms—to addict us to always-on phone connectivity and the instant hit of the like notification.

All this has been buzzing in my brain for a couple of years, and among the defence mechanisms I’ve tried to implement include daily disconnection from the almost incessant buzz of technology (my phone is now unwelcome upstairs, and I know when I bring it there I’m on a path to a depressive dip that needs corrective action to avoid) and tangible groundedness to the earth and physical environment that surrounds me. My general success rate has been two steps forward, one step back, but even that has allowed me to see the potential damage all of this can do to my brain, and from there my entire life.

This week I experienced one of the big steps back that occasionally come my way. Over the past week I became glued to the TV screens from the Houses of Parliament in London to watch the maneuvrings in Boris Johnson’s UK government, a potentially deadly combination of individuals characterised by callousness or cluelessness or both.

I couldn’t get away from it.

I watched as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party called out the despicable Jacob Rees-Mogg for lounging full-length across the front benches and treating historic parliamentary debate with utter contempt.

I watched as Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi of the Labour Party delivered a passionate speech in which he asked Johnson to apologise for labelling Muslim women as letterboxes, accusing the prime minister of inciting a spike in hate crime.

I watched as Jess Phillips stood, visibly seething with anger, to say that she does not trust a single word that comes out of Johnson’s mouth [and apologised to the Speaker if such a condemnation might be seen as “unparliamentary”].

I watched as balanced Conservatives like Dominic Grieve and Antoinette Sandbach outlined their reasons for voting against their own Government.

All those moments were captured and uploaded as short clips to the various social media platforms, although as their reach expanded, their power was somehow diluted and diminished, because it was presented alongside the bluster and propaganda of Johnson speaking to camera and on script from the comfort of his office, in a video that will probably have been subjected to paid promotion by people with an agenda, and thus displayed to far more people via careful targeting based on people’s personal data and typical behaviours, than the organic reach of the earlier explosive moments.

When we are presented with two opposite viewpoints like these, two viewpoints that are passionately at the furthest end of the political spectrum, and when each viewpoint taken on its own sounds like it might be plausible, the normal human response is to be confused.

That confusion—the confusion of hearing all sides and understanding none, the confusion of being assaulted on all sides by noise every few minutes of every day, the confusion of being unable to take a step back and away from the storm that is engulfing almost every one of us—is something that triggers the fear deep in our brains, and from there to a rising sense of anxiety, panic, anger or shame deep in our chests.

And authoritarians, dictators and plutocrats crest the wave of that confusion, shame and fear to deliver themselves to power, where they say one thing and do another to their own ends.

I realised with a sinking feeling that the only thing really in my power to do was to switch off, and that switching off was so insufficient.

I realised that there must be a way to be balanced about all the political shenanigans of our time, a way to engage in meaningful discussion about issues that matter without reducing ourselves to snap judgments based on short sound bites that appeal to our basest fears and anxieties, all propelled our way by sophisticated code written by some of the world’s brightest minds at the behest of some of the greediest.

But while disconnecting is insufficient, it is what we must do. We must disconnect from the noise for long enough for us to look around and breathe and rediscover our sense of perspective and wonder.

And then, when we reconnect, because reconnect we must, we must strive to read and watch and communicate intentionally.

We must try to have honesty and integrity in our macro ethos and in our micro conversations.

We must try to embrace compassion and kindness and understanding, because for all our manifold flaws, people up close are mostly good people.

We must try.

The price is too big if we don’t.


Shane Breslin is a writer, coach, speaker and podcaster based in Ireland. He has spoken at a TEDx conference in Dublin and runs the Life Well Lived Project, whose mission is to provide support, guidance and inspiration to help people overcome their own challenges, embrace their once-in-history uniqueness and live a life of vitality, fulfilment and happiness. The Life Well Lived Project includes includes regular writing and a podcast series. You can sign up for free to receive regular email updates from Shane here.

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Embracing desire, letting go of expectation: A Stoic philosophy via Tim Ferriss, tennis and inner demons

I took up tennis this year. Joined the local club, showed up to a few social nights. Eventually, became sufficiently comfortable on court to put my name forward for a couple of entry-level leagues.

Me and tennis go way back, but it was a distant relationship.

For years I had wanted to play.

I’ve got vivid memories of childhood summers spent in front of the television, listening to John McEnroe’s verbal explosions, smiling at Henri Laconte’s brand of on-court crowd entertainment, watching — no, studying — Stefan Edberg’s serve-volley technique.

And falling a little bit in love with Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf. 

My games were football: Gaelic and soccer. Team sports. I played no individual sport competitively, but to it I brought an individual’s mindset, an outsider’s sentiment.

So even in the team sports I found a way to the individual position: goalkeeper. The place where I would mark nobody, where nobody would mark me, where for long stretches of every game I would be alone with my thoughts. And the thoughts could become fears, and the fears could become demons.

Every match the gauntlet was thrown down: me vs my demons. I projected bravado, as much as I could. I hollered and roared and swore, so much that parents of young children half-jokingly admonished me for the sounds and the fury to which I’d just exposed their kids. Half-joking, but at least half-serious too. But through it all, the demons were there. Perched on my shoulder, their words pecking incessantly at my ear-drum.

When victory came, I celebrated it with relief. Relief that I had not screwed up, or that the screw-ups had not been costly.

When defeat came, I marked it with self-recrimination. Was there something I could have done differently? A step quicker in this direction or that? A different warm-up routine that might have allowed my body to get down to that low ball to my right? Finding the courage to say the right word at the right moment in the dressing room? I routinely blamed myself for everything that went badly, gave credit elsewhere when it went well.

Either relief or blame. No real joy, never any real joy.

After 20 years of the team environment of football, I was ready for something just for me. To test myself and my mind in something new, where I could let nobody down — at least, nobody but me.

The options: tennis, or golf, or mixed martial arts. 

Golf: a bit too much time and a bit too much expense. 

Mixed martial arts: Soon, perhaps. I can’t imagine going through life without exposing myself to martial arts. (An introductory Brazilian jiu jitsu class takes place far from me. I’ve marked it down for the near future. But I see BJJ and MMA as more for my mind than for competition, at least for now.)

So tennis it was.

I left aside the sense of class politics at play: within the past two weeks, one person has said to me, “I know a few people, put them in tennis gear and they wouldn’t say hello to you.”

The idle talk brings stoicism to mind. Stoicism has been speaking to me lately, and maybe it’s the ethos and philosophy I’ve been preparing for my whole life. With idle talk, I can listen to it, or I can ignore it.

Stoicism tells me ignore it.

Stoicism tells me that the thoughts and the words and the actions of other people are not important to me.

Stoicism says that the only important things are what I think and what I do.

Control the controllables.

There’s an air of Stoicism about Andre Agassi, the great former champion. His autobiography, Open, was quickly acclaimed as the best sporting autobiography ever written after it was published almost a decade ago, but I’ve only got to it this month. Wimbledon on the television, rackets out for club night, Agassi on the bedside locker: it’s been wall-to-wall tennis these past two weeks.

One of the heroes of Agassi’s book is his long-time coach and mentor, Gil Reyes, who educated him about what it means to be human, the afflictions of expectations and turmoil and possibilities and despair of being alive in the world.

We need, said Reyes, to see ourselves as part engineer, part mathematician, part artist, part mystic. We need to grind the cogs, we need to crunch the numbers, we need to channel our innate creativity and we need to embrace some higher power, whether it comes from God or Gaia or the universe or some place else.

And with all that, we need to find a way to be comfortable with all the contradictions that being part engineer, part mathematician, part artist and part mystic brings. Because life without contradictions and struggle and tension is impossible. 

The Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and fellas like that, would approve, I think.

There’s an equation for happiness that has been doing the rounds on various Internet memes and discussion forums in recent years. I’m not sure of its provenance — it could well derive from ancient wisdom, Stoicism or otherwise — but it goes like this:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

The equation appeals to the part mathematician in me. The attempt to try to find balance on either side of the equals sign is a noble one, even if it’s rarely possible.

Looking closely at the equation, it suggests the biggest challenge to happiness is expectation. That it is our expectations of reality, not reality itself, that make us unhappy.

One obvious option, then, is to lower our expectations. Critics of Stoicism might suggest that low expectations is a hallmark.

Tim Ferriss, a modern day Stoic, has a riff about the perception of the philosophy. “Stoicism? Well that sounds boring,” he says. “It might conjure an image of a cow standing in the rain. It’s not sad, it’s not particularly happy, it’s just an impassive creature taking whatever life sends its way.”

But that perception is not reality. Stoicism has been used as a tool and a guiding principle by some of the greatest minds in the history of humanity, from Roman emperors to American founding fathers to sporting greats, both in performance and in coaching.

In the Happiness = Reality – Expectations equation, becoming an impassive creature taking whatever life sends our way is a surefire way to lower our expectations to zero.

And if we find a way to do that, since reality is unlikely to be zero, then we can take pleasure and enjoyment in the smallest good things that come our way — “I didn’t get a speeding fine! Oh how wonderful!”, or “I am taking great pleasure in this raisin, bite by little bite”.

But the greatest minds in history would not approve of lowering expectations to zero.

Lowering our expectations to zero, while it might be theoretically laudable, is practically implausible.

By all means, we should not have expectations for outlandishness. Go into every competition expecting to come out number 1 against all-comers, and we’re almost certain to be so frequently disappointed that discontentment will become our norm.

So if (1) being happy with our lot is a legitimate aspiration (and I do believe that happiness — the true happiness of eudaimonia, not the transient material pleasure of hedonism — is the meaning and the point and the purpose of life) and if (2) lowering expectations to zero is implausible, or even impossible, what can we do?

It is, I think, to practise embracing desire while letting go of expectations. To have big ambitions and a clear, actionable plan to realise those ambitions, but to find a way to divest those ambitions of the expectation that they will become a reality. 

[An aside on ambition. Ambition can be two things: zero-sum or win-win. Zero-sum ambition, where your success depends on someone else’s failure, is not sustaining or sustainable. Win-win ambition is ambition with integrity, where your success is built upon someone else’s success before you, and where your success lays the foundations for the success of others to follow.]

The obligation to take action, the necessity to expect no particular outcome

We have one short and precious life. It’s obligatory for us on the one hand to aim big, taking action relentlessly so we do everything in our power to make those big ambitions a reality, and on the other to rid ourselves of expectations or entitlement to the outcome. 

We must lose ourselves in the daily minute process and the overall motivating purpose, and at the same time strip ourselves of the ego wrapped up in the twin impostors of triumph and disaster.

Desire is natural, and human, and resists the scalpel. Cut out the desire, and we cut out the life.

When we expect something, we are invariably left cold. We’re left cold when the thing we expect becomes a reality, because, after all, we expected it all along, so how can we take pleasure in something that was expected to happen? And we are colder if it doesn’t, because there is nothing to deadening as for things to turn out less than they were supposed to be.

When we desire something worthwhile, and when we can take action to bring ourselves to the place where it is achieved, but at every step of the way we take care to strip ourselves of ego-driven expectation, then we can truly, I think, become lost in the moment, driven by something meaningful, and fully completely at one with ourselves.

I desire a fast first serve, and I’ll work hard at getting it, but I’m not sure I have any expectation that it will ever become a reality.

And I suppose that’s a good thing. 

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

The spectrum of the human condition includes everyone

The human condition is everything, and by the very definition — we are human — it affects all of us. Let me go further: The human condition is all of us.

But first, a definition (as offered by Wiktionary). The human condition is

the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.

Wise old Shakespeare gave his take on the human condition memorably as the seven acts of being in his “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It.

The human condition — this state of being human — contains everything: joy and sadness, love and grief, certainty and doubt, clarity and overwhelming ambiguity.

In this era of extraordinary and unprecedented technological change (I hesitate to say “progress”), it contains all the collective state of figuring-things-out that all of us now experience simultaneously.

This can become manifest in anyone as fear or anxiety or violence or addiction or depression or self-sabotage.

The difference, at an individual level, is not between those who experience suffering and doubt, and those who do not.

The difference, knowing that suffering and doubt affects everyone, is in how we respond to it.

To learn from the past but not wallow there. To plan for the future but not become slave to its multitude of possibilities.

To choose to stay present as much as we can, to decide what is the next right thing to do, and to do it as best we can.

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

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Why Choosing to Disconnect Could Be Just What We Need for Deeper Connection

Shane Breslin

Words are important.

The old “sticks and stones might break my bones, but words can never hurt me” line never fully rang true for me. Because I know how powerful words can be.

Words, used with casual flippancy or malicious intent, can cause untold hurt. Words, used in the right way, can change the world for the better.

Words carefully placed and strung together with honesty of intent can evoke powerful emotion in the listener or reader. Emotion is a key factor in our unconscious mind, and some studies in the fields of neuroscience, behavioral science and biology suggest our unconscious mind is responsible for 95% of all our decisions, behaviours and patterns.

So words are important.

For the past two Januarys I’ve decided to select a focus word for the 12 months ahead.

Last year my focus word was AWARENESS.

I was going through a reawakening, a shift in who I am, of where I am in the world, of what I should be doing and who I should be doing it with.

And I felt that a focus on awareness would be valuable. It definitely proved valuable, in ways that are hard yet to quantify, and are not yet proving valuable in monetary or material ways, but I think are priceless at a deeper, more spiritual level.

For 2019 my focus word is CONNECTION.

CONNECTION to myself, to the person I am becoming, trusting that the path I am on is the right path and requiring me to disobey the urges I have to beat down the real me and continue to present a false veneer to the world.

At some level, this must be working. I met with a former work colleague recently, someone I always respected for his warm integrity and his sense of fairness and humanity. We had shared an office and many, many meetings for several months a few years back. When we met for coffee recently, he said to me, “It feels like this is the first time we’ve met.”

Such growth or expansion — I’m searching for the right word — is accompanied by a lot of pain and suffering. This trying to figure out where next without a map has been desperately painful for me, beset as it is by the incessant hum of self-loathing, the almost non-existent self-worth and almost ever-present self-doubt. It has also been desperately painful for those closest to me to witness all this and keep supporting me through it, while they and I struggle to understand or articulate exactly what is going on.

I am often stuck fast between the pain that finding my way inflicts on my loved ones in the moment, and the pain that recoiling from this path might inflict on them indefinitely. I greatly regret that this path requires that suffering, and I yearn for a Zen state of higher consciousness and calm, but I’m not there yet and I know it’s still some distance away. I choose the psychological pain of tackling the present moment head on instead of distracting myself from it, because I believe at some deep untouchable level that this is the only right choice.

To hear that from my friend and former colleague, that it felt like the first time we’ve met, that it felt like he was meeting someone new and different and maybe reborn, tells me that the pain of the journey is a worthwhile pain, and that further rebirths lie ahead if I can stick to the path.

So connection to myself, the true reality of myself, firstly. A case of putting my own oxygen mask on first.

CONNECTION also to others. A deeper connection to people who matter. Dr Zach Bush, one of the most phenomenal human beings on the planet, and someone for whom the future of the planet occupies a critical part of his thinking, told Rich Roll recently, “You and I are here together right now, and the odds of that are zero, so clearly we are here for a reason.”

“We are together right now, and the odds of that are zero.”

I think of that sentence a lot. When I allow it to — and my self-protecting lizard brain does its best to resist, and very often sabotages things entirely — that sentence enlightens and uplifts every moment I spend with another person.

So connection to others, too, and allowing the magic of those zero odds connections to change the world.

And CONNECTION to the planet. I spoke to Masami Sato of the B1G1 initiative for my podcast recently, and she told the story of how, in her 20s, she became so disillusioned by the world and the damage that all our countless small daily actions and transactions can inflict on it, that she retreated to rural Japan to try self-sustainability. After two years, however, she realised that it was an impossible dream, and that a better course of action is to participate in the world with the full intention of allowing those actions and transactions to impact in a positive way, rather than a mindless negative one.

Connection to the planet is hard when you’re scrabbling to put food on the table, and the green beans from Kenya and the avocados from Peru are on special offer in Lidl.

The interconnectivity of everything is mind-boggling. Being aware of that connection is a necessary first step, I think. At our home, we still don’t grow any of our own food or keep our own chickens, but I suspect it’s not far away. It feels necessary.

The Obstacles to Connection

All this superficial connection inundates real connection, drowning it out so that we find ourselves with 900 Facebook friends and almost no-one to call when we feel like throwing ourselves off a bridge.

There are obstacles to CONNECTION, and perversely I think, some of the biggest obstacles are the incessant connectivity we all experience virtually every moment of every day.

I recently downloaded the Words With Friends app to play with Lorraine and a few friends. The relentlessness of the advertising is obscene. (And yes, I realise I can pay a few euros and switch off the ads … and I realise also how logical and necessary just paying for something is as a first step to quieting the relentless advertising. Increasingly, the world in which we live is an ad-supported model, where we get everything for free but at the psychologically catastrophic price of literally endless messages aimed at selling us stuff we would rarely seek out and definitely do not need.)

Social media, where connection is literally the engine and the fuel and the destination, is increasingly a massive factor in killing our ability to truly connect at a meaningful level.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and others are incredibly powerful tools, allowing us the capability to join communities and build meaningful friendships with people on the opposite side of the world who we could never hope to meet in the ordinary world that existed just a couple of decades ago.

And yet we have lost something vital too, with all this superficial connection inundating real connection, drowning it out so that we find ourselves with 900 Facebook friends and almost no-one to call when we feel like throwing ourselves off a bridge.

We have limitless opportunity for connection, but this is a knife that cuts both ways, and the assault on us from outside is also limitless, and our brains have become conditioned to restlessness, which impacts on everything from our sleep to our energy to our productivity.

Disconnecting could be the route to reconnecting again.

Disconnecting will be different for everyone, depending on how desperate the need and how deep the yearning for the meaningful connection that can follow.

It can be as simple as killing all our phone notifications, or removing the social media apps. (Instagram, for those who use it, can be a real challenge, given that it’s effectively locked to your phone. WhatsApp is similarly phone-centric but it is at least a closed environment. And the ugly reality that Facebook owns all of these, and everything you do there, suggests that we are seeing just the tip of an iceberg that could sink all our boats…)

It could require something more, such as intentionally giving ourselves at least 10 hours a day phone-free (eight hours of restorative sleep and an hour either side).

It could require one day every week without our phone, which might sound like hell on earth to some, depending on the depth of the addiction.

Or it could mean a spa treatment or a retreat or a pilgrimage. Getting away from it all used to be almost exclusively a physical thing, but with our digital lives and responsibilities pursuing us everywhere we go, the need is more psychological than it has ever been.

Whatever the triage and the treatment, there’s little doubt, I think, that choosing to disconnect can bring about the most meaningful connection we’ve had in ages.

Connection to ourselves, to each other and to the planet. Connection where all of us are better off.

Happy disconnecting!

 

(Main photo credit: Israel Palacio on Unsplash)