All Hail the Non-Industrious

Photo by Zhang Kenny on Unsplash. This photo is awesome.

Hello everyone!

I published the below piece with a Medium publication, An Injustice! I have permission to publish it again here on my blog. This piece is about some collective societal beliefs around modern work. My hope is that you find it useful in articulating some of the beliefs which underpin our relationship with work (but the focus is less on the individual and more on society). Enjoy!

Let me tell you a story about a missionary and a Samoan, whom he discovered lying on a beach:

Missionary: Look at you! You’re just wasting your life away, lying around like that.
Samoan: Why? What do you think I should be doing?
Missionary: Well, there are plenty of coconuts all around here. Why not dry some copra and sell it?
Samoan: And why would I want to do that?
Missionary: You could make a lot of money. And with the money you make, you could get a drying machine, and dry copra faster, and make even more money.
Samoan: Okay. And why would I want to do that?
Missionary: Well, you’d be rich. You could buy land, plant more trees, expand operations. At that point, you wouldn’t even have to do the physical work anymore, you could just hire a bunch of other people to do it for you.
Samoan: Okay. And why would I want to do that?
Missionary: Well, eventually, with all that copra, land, machines, employees, with all that money — you could retire a very rich man. And then you wouldn’t have to do anything. You could just lie on the beach all day.

This is not my story — it appears in David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. When I read it, I found that it struck a chord.

Certainly, it points out some societal nonsense. Why would we erect an artificial barrier to enjoying our lives when the means were already there?

But it also touches upon something quite perverse: a belief that only those who work are deserving of the resources required to enjoy life, or perhaps even to live at all. And specifically, it is a plunderer’s work that will qualify. The missionary is not suggesting that the Samoan make some copra to give to his sick, elderly neighbour. He wants the Samoan to turn a profit from the natural resource just lying there for the taking.

It is no stretch to say that modern work is broken. Any system which incentivises the growth-driven behaviour which literally threatens our survival — and indeed, has already made good on that threat for a few — is bound to have some flaws baked in.

So, let’s look at some of the beliefs which are driving this system. Like how we believe that work is inherently virtuous. That we must deserve access to resources. That people who don’t work enthusiastically at dead-end low-paying jobs are lazy and deserve everything they don’t get.

Just maybe it is time to stop beating up on the non-industrious. Perhaps the world really does owe everybody a living.

You must work to deserve a living

Here is how it works (but you already know this because of the stomach ulcers).

We need some basics to live with a minimum degree of comfort and dignity. Such basics include water, food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare and clean, unpolluted air. To secure all this good stuff, we have compensated work.

Some of us can skip the work part because we have inherited or accumulated enough wealth to act as a rentier. For those who cannot work, there is welfare. Relying on welfare is not encouraged, so think of it more as a net with holes. One with a form fetish and which really resents us having to use it. Which means that the majority of us must earn, though compensated work, what we need. Either that, or we are financially dependent upon somebody else.

So what dynamic do we create when work (of particular types, of course) is responsible for securing our most basic needs?

The dynamic is more of a clash, really. It is a clash between the needs of living (to imbue life with meaning, dignity and beauty, and to walk away when those features are absent) and those of survival. This invariably involves the first bending to the second.

At its ugliest, it is a clash between different survival needs. Like knowing that your polluting factory will probably give you cancer, but you need food today. Or having to compromise on safety to pay the rent, hoping the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire scenario is not due to repeat in your neighbourhood.

The result, to put it bluntly, is a slavery by consent. It is true that when we consent to this particular exploitative job, nobody forced us to say yes. Nobody forces us to stay. But it is slavery when there are no viable alternatives.

Of course, some of us won the geographic lottery and benefit from something called workplace standards. By and large, those standards keep us from being exploited, contracting mesothelioma and being sexually harassed. Well, more or less.

But is the dynamic all that different? What needs, values or ideals are we forced to compromise because we are terrified that we will lose our pay-cheque? Perhaps we forgo pursing a personally meaningful career; we become a banker and not a juggler. (And yes, the juggler may well have more social utility than a banker.) Or we put up with sexism in the workplace, knowing that a complaint will jeopardise our future at the company and anywhere else. Or, as a government, we rush out of a COVID lockdown to meet the needs of the economy, at the expense of community safety.

Ultimately, we know that things can turn out really, really bad. We see it all the time. Homelessness is not a disappearing problem. It is growing. In this environment, security doesn’t come from having a job and a full belly right now. It means shoring up as many resources as possible for the future and buying multiple passports in the countries which haven’t yet polluted all of their water. And this type of security is illusory and ravenous; it is always out of reach and will always demand more.

What if we were to decouple work from compensation? This could be achieved through something like Universal Basic Income. Or perhaps through establishing absolute human rights to things such as a secure and safe place to live. Or you could tackle it from another direction, and do what the modern monetary theorists sometimes suggest and establish a universal right of employment to all, by having the government give an open-ended commitment to provide job seekers with access to a living wage in exchange for performing public service work.

Many would argue that this would be the collapse of society as we know it. Well, good.

People who are fearful and insecure do not make good decisions. Nor do they think long-term. They are more compliant, less critical. This is why politicians love to use fear. To illustrate with just a minor example, in Australia, the Opposition Leader outlined a plan to support the introduction of electric vehicles. Our coal-loving Prime Minister attacked that plan on the basis that it would deprive people of the enjoyment of their weekend jaunts in SUVs, invoking (ahem, fabricating) the fear that, “Bill Shorten [the Opposition Leader] wants to end the weekend”.

Our biggest fear of all is that we cannot provide for our families. Think what that fear could be used for.

So, what would be possible if you knew that the net had no holes and would graciously catch you and your family for the foreseeable future, no matter the circumstances?

Well, there are trials for such things so you can collect the data and find out. The results of the trials to date, captured in books such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, are extremely promising. The trials just keep getting aborted prematurely by conservative, right-leaning governments.

I like to imagine that the quality of jobs would improve, because companies would be required to properly incentivise people to work for them (rather than assume that they are desperate and will accept whatever they are offered).

What else could happen? We could save lives. Economic dependence has the tendency of enabling or creating abusers of those less powerful, and keeps the abused in such situations.

This is well documented in the case of intimate partner violence. As the law professor Dana Harrington Conner states, “economic dependence is the link that binds a woman to her abuser” and “[f]inancial insecurity increases the danger levels, limits avenues of escape, and reduces the likelihood that a survivor of intimate partner violence, once liberated, will remain free from her abuser.” (Dana Harrington Conner, Financial Freedom: Women, Money, and Domestic Abuse, 20 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 339 at 397 (2014))

Just to keep the daydream rolling, workers in the coal mining industry could free themselves of the contradiction which comes from earning a pay-cheque to support their families by engaging in activities which also hasten their demise. I suspect the fast-food industry would lose some of its cheap labour and finally charge the prices which reflect the true toll on human health and the environment. There would be less desperation to fuel the sex-industry. There could be less stress-related disease. More community activity. Time to study, create, day-dream, gossip and cook. It’s worth a trial, don’t you think?

What gets in the way of having the alternatives truly explored is a set of beliefs which shoot the proposals down prematurely. Beliefs that say that if people weren’t forced to work, they would do nothing. They would get divorces and become alcoholics (which, ironically, captures the outcome for many of the over-worked). If people weren’t incentivised to do the shitty jobs, they wouldn’t get done. Our quality of life would plummet.

I highly doubt this, but that’s why we have trials, research and clever people that like to think about complex stuff. But I will say this. Do not mistake a belief for a fact.

Beliefs can be questioned, if the mind is open enough. Questions which in this case include:

  • How many people are genuinely happy doing nothing all day? At the very least, they are likely to be caring for family members and engaging in the uncompensated work that still needs to be done.
  • How many of our jobs are truly essential and how many create and then purport to meet an inadequacy, like selling make-up to apply to our legs to make the skin look as perfect as plastic?
  • Related to the above, how many of the jobs that we force people to do are about producing stuff or providing services that we don’t really want and don’t have time to enjoy?
  • Could we achieve a better quality of life by having less stuff (or at least, stuff that doesn’t break so readily and could be fixed more easily)?
  • Are there other ways to incentivise and ensure that the essential work gets done, in a way which is not exploitative?
  • If our true aim was to incentivise people to get the essential work done, why don’t we pay these jobs in proportion to their social impact?
  • Isn’t it telling that many of the “essential” workers identified during the COVID pandemic are forced out of economic necessity to work multiple jobs at multiple sites, furthering the crisis when they get sick?

It is virtually impossible now to survive on self-production, barter and social credit, as we used to do. We need money. No wonder we get crazy about it. The question is what we are willing to allow in its name.

Work is inherently virtuous

Work has acquired a moral veneer — good people work and lazy people don’t. Usually you will find lazy people lurking within the ranks of the poor, young and welfare recipients. Or perhaps they belong to a certain national or ethnic group. And so, we can safely deem that the economically disadvantaged people within these groups deserve to be there (it’s safe because these groups aren’t listened to if they disagree).

To the genuine credit of people, many of us don’t want to be a burden and we want to pay our way. The powers that be like this attitude; it creates wealth which they are rarely obliged to share. What isn’t questioned, or at least nowhere near enough, is whether we are a burden because of the work we do, not because we don’t do enough. (And this is not to cast judgment — we are obliged to work this hard because of the dynamic discussed above.)

Because there will be groups of people trying to clean up the Great Pacific garbage patch. And there will be groups of people making the disposable plastic which ends up in the Great Pacific garbage patch. Where is the qualitative assessment of our work?

As productivity exponentially increased over the last century, we had the option of working less. A lot less. But we said no. We choose to work the same if not more, creating more products and services and commodifying yet further features of our lives in order to plug the gap.

There is a spiritual toll in reducing everything in life to its value, and increasingly, neglecting to service those things which defy value, namely, our values. But there is an existential threat looming large which renders our belief that work is inherently virtuous particularly pernicious. It turns out that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is setting us up for an adjustment. A nasty one.

In the 1970s, the famous Jay Forrester of MIT warned that:

Ahead looms the question of how growth will be stopped. Will it be by some inherent system pressure [i.e. pollution, population, resource depletion etc.]…? Or will it be by self-imposed pressures and restraints? Many alternatives lie before us for stopping exponential growth. One choice not available is for growth to go unchecked.”

Which led him to conclude that: “Our greatest challenge now is how to handle the transition from growth into equilibrium.” (J.W. Forrester, World Dynamics, 2nd ed, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wright-Allen Press, Inc., 1973 at 112–113).

Our period of growth will end, but just maybe we can choose the brake.

If you are guessing that I’m hinting that we should work less, you would be mostly right. Some work we can cut out. Other work we need more of. Yet still more work needs to change in nature. Overall, I believe we should work less. And this just might be one of the most effective things we can do to save ourselves.

What about the rising costs of living and all that? Properly put, this is not a production problem, but a distribution problem. If wages are stagnant and productivity increases, then the benefits of that productivity are going somewhere. They like to fly upwards.

To achieve a shift from growth to equilibrium, we would have to focus less on the conditions which would create the most overall wealth and more on something else — we can decide, but just maybe it should be the conditions which create happier, healthier people. All people, not just those within our borders. Otherwise, there will be no true security. But let’s stop with the nonsense that work is by definition virtuous.

Laziness is a vice…or is it?

One unfortunate side-effect of the rampant individualism of today, appearing in the hierarchy just below selfie-sticks, is the tendency to blame individuals for outcomes wrought by structural wrongs.

A person who responds to work badly — and by that, I mean they are fatigued, depressed, anxious, nervous or disengaged on a chronic basis—might be inclined to consider themselves lazy, broken, or responsible for the situation they find themselves in. Others will certainly form that view.

Yes, there is a time and place for individual responsibility. But extreme focus on the individual can blind us to the signals which point to the flaws of the structure. Flaws which might include incentives to be pathologically competitive (think law students hiding library textbooks from each other). There might also be a flaw in the setting of goals; maybe wealth creation as a goal is not good for us. Or perhaps the flaw lies with an assumption, such as the capacity of the free market to deliver us from all evils and drive the engine of human progress, whatever that means (probably the production of selfie-sticks).

So, instead of labelling somebody a millennial snowflake, let’s consider instead whether they:

  • juggle a million different pressures, including scarcity of time and finances, leading to cognitive overwhelm;
  • do things which are inherently against their nature, like peddling fear to sell products to pensioners who cannot afford them;
  • compete in a false meritocracy;
  • are treated like machines, not humans (we do not switch on at 9am and power down at 5pm, but wouldn’t that be nice);
  • feel trapped, because the future looks hopeless;
  • feel depressed, because they feel trapped because the future looks hopeless;
  • need some rest and play;
  • are grieving, especially if that grief doesn’t fall within a standard category or time frame, putting them at risk of being diagnosed with a mental disorder (like me — I lost my beautiful green coffee keep cup a week ago and I’m still not over it).

Many people expend great effort to work through the difficulties above. This is something to admire. It is also such a waste; the effort required to get out of bed each day could be diverted into personally meaningful and creative work.

Also, let’s consider the message here: it’s okay to be miserable provided it pays financially. This is connected to another alarming outcome: the existence of an inverse relationship between the social utility of a job and its pay. If you find your job personally fulfilling, chances are it will not earn you a liveable wage. Sorry, poets.

So instead of using laziness as a way to justify the harsh treatment of whole classes of people, we could gather the data to rework our structures, systems and paradigms.

Unquestioned beliefs keep us stuck

When we understand that we are operating within a belief system, and not an inevitable and unquestionable state of affairs, we create distance. Distance which might provide relief, allow us to change things or to change ourselves.

The transition from growth to equilibrium is coming. We just don’t know what it will look like. The brake which is applied might be brutish, such as finding that we have polluted too much of the land required for agriculture. Or it could be gentler, like if we cut back on unnecessary and soul-destroying work. But reforms of the equilibrium type are only possible if we revisit the set of assumptions, values and beliefs which drive modern work.

The Experience of Being Arrested – Not Just in My Head

This is not me, but the police to protester ratio appears about right.

No doubt this is a strange thing to declare, especially in the enduring realm of the internet, but I was arrested earlier this year. It was done deliberately, as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest. In fact, given Australia’s deep conservatism and fossil-fuel addiction, the second sentence is by far the more shocking and my social stock has really plummeted (yes, I’m also really upset).

Being arrested is not fun, as you might imagine. This was to be expected. What gave me pause, however, is how the physical and emotional aspects of the experience were massively at odds with the mental processes of the arrest and subsequent court hearing. It reminded me that we live in a brain-centric world. One which has a cost. And an alternative…

Mind Dominance

The problem is not that we have minds and that we use them – I’m all for that, yay! – but rather that we regularly subjugate our bodily feelings to cognitive functions. We believe that the mind holds natural dominium over the body; that we should and must attempt to control the body with the mind. The body’s various messages and protests can be ignored because – as the theory goes – they contain all the wisdom of a toddler demanding candy before dinner and they will thwart our aims. In order for this to work, we also need to believe that the “mind” and the “body” are somehow separate.

Deep down I think we know that these beliefs are fairly rubbish and it doesn’t take much of our vaunted brain power to substantiate that conclusion. Nonetheless, we show great reluctance to give them up. If we did, things would look very different.

So, what do things look like now? Well, whenever we identify a value, it is actioned cognitively. To give due credit, this next section is inspired and informed by the work of Stephen W. Porges, including his book The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe (2017, New York) – a non-clinician guide to Polyvagal Theory, which stresses the importance of feeling safe (from a bodily perspective) and how this is key to forming strong social bonds, while simultaneously supporting health, growth and restoration.

As a first example of how we define and service our values cognitively, let’s look at our hospitals. We have hospitals to help people get better (more specifically, they have the dual objectives of delivering health services and seeking to minimise malpractice risk). With these objectives in mind, hospitals are designed for the surveillance of patients and the maintenance of cleanliness. We fill them with hard, white surfaces which bounce sound. We hook people up to machines that beep and place them under bright lights. Doctors and patients are continuously evaluated.

All of this makes sense. But when does the body heal best? When we are comfortable and relaxed, not in a heightened vigilant state. To accommodate the needs of the body, we could provide warmer light, except for consultations. We could maximise the opportunities for people to sleep, uninterrupted. We could ensure that unnecessary sound is eliminated and that the remaining sound is absorbed. We could support people as they navigate the unpredictability of a new and public environment, bereft of their normal social support features. Basically, we could design interventions which recruit neural circuits for health, growth and restoration, and not for defence.

Then consider safety. We typically attempt to keep people safe by increasing surveillance, imposing harsher penalties for crime and weaponising the “good guys”. And so we busily install millions of CCTV cameras and set the age of criminal responsibility shockingly low (in Australia it is ten – oh yes, we are in the habit of arresting, charging, bringing before a court and imprisoning ten year old children). We give US principals loaded guns to walk around their schools with and impose “three-strike” laws. This is part of the legal and cultural definition of what it means to be safe.

Here is the cold comfort in these measures: if something horrible happened to you, the person responsible could be more easily caught and more severely punished. And who knows, maybe if you were a ten year old kid on the cusp of committing crime, you would indeed factor in the low age of criminal responsibility and decide to play hop-skip-jump instead.

Again, we have nervous systems which interpret or define safety very differently. Our bodies will scan the environment, looking for features of safety and features of danger. A feature of “safety” is not going to be a surveillance camera – chronic evaluation will not help you feel safer in the body. You will not feel safe looking at a weapon or in the keeping of knowledge that somebody will “pay”. Actually, I feel less safe with these features present. I worry about the conditions that have resulted in them becoming acceptable features of our communities and interactions with each other.

One final example before I get off this particular soap-box. Let’s consider how the police look after you while you are in their custody in lock-up. As part of the admission process you are asked a list of questions. Some of these concern your predisposition to self-harm. I understand that should you disclose this risk, you will be subjected to a different admission process. You will be strip searched and given disposable clothing to wear (women are required to remove bras which have underwire). You will held in a separate cell and placed under increased supervision.

Obviously, the police are systematically reducing the opportunities for you to action the self-harm to which you are prone. However, they have also created the conditions which increase the likelihood that you would want to. Being subjected to involuntary processes, like strip searches, can be traumatic events (and depending on your personal history, may even be re-traumatising). You will likely feel quite vulnerable wearing clothing which is not your own (and for women used to wearing bras, being without one will make you feel exposed). Increased evaluation can be stressful.

To me, this cognitive focus represents a huge limitation in how we serve our values. We also stand to lose so much, which is what I go on to explain below.

The Great Discounting

This brain-centric worldview usually leads to a type of dissociation from the body. Ask a bunch of lawyers what they feel in their body and they will struggle to answer (but they may want to argue with you about how the question is stupid and irrelevant). We divorce ourselves from the richness of the human experience.

What happens when we do feel something? Regularly, we receive signals from the body about what we want, need and what needs to change. Largely, we ignore those messages. We push through thirst, hunger, discomfort, boredom, anxiety, grief, depression and pain. That is, until these conditions become chronic. Then the body stops with its polite, tentative suggestions and starts yelling instead.

Of course, we don’t need to respond exactly to what the body wants all the time. I am thirsty right now but also want to finish this sentence. I also – more or less – participate in a society which has certain expectations about how I should behave. The difficulty arises from our routine dismissal of the body, our treatment of its signals as messages to be ignored, not actioned. You can spend a lifetime learning how to decode the messages from your body (fun twist – they are not always in language) or you can become an expert at ignoring them – not both.

Perversely, this bodily denial is celebrated in culture and sadly this is what we respond to. As a young lawyer, I was praised for my ability to work through the night and still construct semi-coherent sentences the next day. We teach children to expand their cognitive capacities, but at the expense of inhibiting their bodily feelings and impulses to move. Our movies celebrate the protagonists who push on and push through to save the day. Having the mind control the body appears to be the ideal.

What we forget is that heroic efforts should be made sparingly, because overwhelmingly they don’t produce great outcomes. Being chronically sleep deprived and stressed is more likely to lead to a breakdown, not a breakthrough. The other horror is to find that you are incessantly busy pursuing hollow aims; keep going and you will develop an expertise that is not only personally meaningless but also keeps you pigeonholed.

The situation becomes murkier still when we reach emotions.

We are not in the practise of observing our emotional states. There is a fear that if we do engage, we will become “emotional”, which, according to the patriarchy, is a state which is both irrational and womanly – the ultimate double insult. Another common fear is that if we engage with emotions, particularly the “negative” ones, we will somehow hurt others.

Which is why we ignore, suppress, struggle with and analyse our emotions instead. Does it work? No. Emotions get stuck. They lurk around in the basement you stuffed them in, feeling neglected, and make surprise hauntings at times you do not appreciate. You might feel them as tension in the body (which eventually becomes pain) or you might blow up on little provocation, courtesy of the subterranean build-up of disgruntled and unexpressed energy. You also lose energy in struggling with them – UGH, I SHOULD NOT BE FEELING ANXIOUS ALL THE TIME – and generate secondary emotions as a result – OH NO, I AM NOW ANXIOUS ABOUT FEELING ANXIOUS ALL THE TIME. And although analysis can be useful, it often slides into a type of cognitively enabled avoidance.

Unfortunately, being taught to discount our emotions does not shield us from the many attempts to manipulate them. Localism and nationalism play on our desire to belong, to have an identity. The far right (or perhaps even just the right) preys on a fear of being weak, of being dominated by others. Advertising creates all-pervasive feelings of inadequacy, which products can then be peddled to solve. Targeting children in this model makes the best of sense, because they are the most emotionally vulnerable. If anything, our neglect of our emotional experience makes us more susceptible to manipulation.

Here’s the thing. It is a false dichotomy that you are either emotional or rational. Being aware of and connecting with your emotions does not mean you lose your cognitive functions. In fact, the awareness helps you exercise cognitive function more clearly. There is less cloud cover. With awareness and allowance of our emotions, most will pass on through like weather events. Or perhaps they contain a gift, some wisdom that you require in order to move forward or make changes. We do not need to be afraid of them; we can find safe ways to feel and express our emotions so that we become less prone to lashing out.

I believe that an emotional connection will help you to use your voice and become stronger. Emotions help us to know ourselves; to discover our boundaries and deepest yearnings. They can even help us to make hard choices. As philosopher Ruth Chang explains in her TED talk, How to Make Hard Choices, it is how the alternatives relate which makes a choice easy or difficult. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall. This is because a hard choice involves the comparison of different values that are nonetheless on par. But a hard choice is actually a gift because it allows you to affirm who you are; it can be approached by answering the question, who am I to be? And my point is that you will need the input of emotions to work out whether you want to be a banker or artist, barrister or life coach.

Personally I would rather be consciously aware of my emotional needs so I can go about meeting them. Then I can enlist the mind to help by crafting the method and in resisting external manipulation.

A Bidirectional Alternative

We use a top-down approach in our lives in which our mental processes are emphasised over bodily experiences. This may work for you. If it does not, there is a marvellous alternative: top-down and bottom-up. We can continue to develop, deploy and value our mental processes and at the same time understand and respect our bodily responses which emanate from the bottom-up.

A bidirectional approach is what I used to help me feel normal again after my arrest and court hearing. Rationally, I knew that I would be largely safe and I understood the consequences which would flow. However, the experience left me feeling rattled, unfocused and dissociated from my body. My act attracted criticism from the public in attendance at the arrest, family members and the magistrate I was assigned (she wanted to impose a harsher penalty than she could and kindly told me as such).

From a body perspective, I had received help in the form of good civil-disobedience training. Part of the training included monitoring our physiological state in arrest simulation scenarios, helping us to prepare for a stressful experience. During lock-up, it also helped that I gave a meditation and yoga class to my cell-sisters in order to pass time. In this way, I was able to access some of my physical and emotional state immediately after the event of the arrest. After being released, I struggled to connect with the body and had to wait until I felt ready to connect again, which I eventually did using my favourite mind-body practises (including yoga).

But this was not enough. I also needed to look at my narrative of the event and how I made sense of it. The counter-narrative was that I had done something foolish and pointless.

This is where I landed. I am not sure whether civil-disobedience is the best method of producing change in climate policy and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. However, what I do know is that we are not acting on the science in order to adequately meet the threat (although I do believe that we have the capacity, technology and resources to do so). The inaction suggests that ideology is at play. Looking to various movements in the past, such as the suffragette and civil rights movements, at times it will not be enough simply to explain the logic and moral injustices of the system. In such cases, peaceful civil disobedience represents a good option for citizens to push for the change which is not happening. In any event, I do not regret taking action in alignment with my values. The other option is to endlessly agonise over which method is “correct” and for nothing to happen at all.

A narrative combined with an understanding of the body can be particularly effective. For this reason, Stephen Porges encourages therapists to have discussions with their patients about their bodily responses to trauma in an attempt to demystify and celebrate them (Polyvagal Theory Handbook, above, page 202). Porges explains that a trauma survivor, particularly those who became immobilised (frozen) or dissociated during an event, will often have the implicit feeling that their body has done something wrong, something very bad.

Our society makes these judgments too, concluding that there is something wrong with people who do not fight back or effectively run away. Tragically, commentators and jurors will look for signs of struggle and physical injury; absent these, they conclude that no traumatic event took place. Which is devastating, because an immobilisation response is completely consistent with the body believing that it is in mortal danger.

What survivors can learn is that immobilisation or dissociation is an adaptive function. If employed, it may save your life. It can minimise physical injury and painful suffering. It may prevent additional aggression. Further, this is a reflexive and involuntary response. You do not get to decide; your body does. The juror thinking that “I would have fought back” is wrong. The body makes the decision for you. Understanding this, survivors can be encouraged to view themselves as heroic, not as a victim.

This narrative can be part of a much larger one that holds that we can trust our bodies, instead of feeling betrayed by them. Your body is on your side and it wants to keep you safe. Instead of looking for what is wrong, we can look for the wisdom in the body’s response.

It may appear that your body is sabotaging your life, but perhaps this is not your right life to live. Perhaps your body and emotions are signalling to you that you are not on track. Or that there is something structurally wrong with the world. In his essay Mutiny of the Soul, Charles Eisenstein puts it this way: “When the soul-body is saying No to participation in the world, the first thing to ask is, “Does the world as it is presented me merit my full participation?”

Cynically, I sometimes believe that we are discouraged from listening to our bodies because to act on their truth would massively disrupt the status quo; a world of consumerism, exploitation and disconnection. Thinking through these issues can be overwhelming. But I am not discouraged; thinking is not the only tool at our disposal.

What’s Your System? (Part 2)

Photo by Linh Ha on Unsplash. Some systems are beautifully chaotic.

I promised a follow up to my previous post “What’s Your System (Part 1)“. Here I present Part 2!

These two posts combined contain suggestions for how we might navigate this world in the knowledge that we cannot control and predict everything. (Besides, even if we could, it wouldn’t matter because we are incapable of understanding everything too.)

Sure, this sounds like bad news. But what it actually means is that our creations and our futures have the capacity to extend beyond our imaginations. Like when we imagined Jetsons-esque aerocars and got the internet instead. I’ll leave you to decide whether that was the better deal.

The 14-item list I have been exploring was created by Donella “Dana” Meadows in her article Dancing With Systems. Dana was outlining general concepts and practices that apply to systems theory, but these are perfectly capable of being applied to general living (as she indeed foreshadowed).

I thought it would be fun to take that list and give it a life coach and general living slant. The additional benefit being that this list provides a structure to my posts that even I can follow.

So, let’s continue that journey and start with item 8 (because 8 comes after 7…).

8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Dana says, “Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure.”

The ugly side of our obsession with numbers is playing out in political and social debate every day. It is why we focus more on cost and less on dignity and compassion when considering welfare reform. Why we are tempted to outline the economic benefits to support a case for diversity, when it should be enough to say that discrimination per se is dehumanising. It is why our political leaders defer action on climate until it is market mandated or they feel secure of their numbers for the next electoral cycle. Call me simple, but I would think that the threat of extinction provides all the justification that is necessary.

Besides, our obsession with measuring doesn’t always do us good. Think about what happens when we seek to attach a reward to a measure. As anthropologist Marilyn Strathern states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Take what happened when the French colonial government in Hanoi, Vietnam created a bounty program in 1902 to kill rats. The result? Population increased. The rat catchers simply lobbed off rat tails to collect the reward, setting the rats free to procreate and reproduce.

And when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) offered carbon credits in exchange for plants eliminating harmful gases, they expected hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – one of the most damaging types of greenhouse gases – to decrease because they offered a very high price for them. Instead, plants switched to coolants which produced HFCs as a by-product, which they could then destroy and get paid for. After spending millions and seeing the use of HFCs increase, the IPCC scrapped the policy.

How does this look like in everyday life? This is what you can do:

  • Notice to what you give your attention. Are there areas in your life where you are focusing on numbers to the exclusion of values? Take this small example. Sometimes I feel I should write snappy blogs on less random subjects, perhaps absent all the snipes against the climate destroyers. Then, probably, more people will read this blog. But if I focus on numbers, suddenly this blog has an agenda – pander to the mainstream – and I find myself writing about things I care little about. I would lose the respect of the readers I am really writing for – you.
  • Consider using your values to guide your decisions. It sounds funny to use something which is unquantifiable to help make your decisions, but that is precisely the gift! It helps you navigate unfamiliar terrain and situations for which there are no laws or rules telling you what to do. There is no law that makes you listen to your partner, but if you value developing a caring relationship with that person, you will be prompted to nod at intervals and make the all the right noises. Following your values helps you support and create things you actually care about.

And so this rule reminds us to pay attention to those things which defy neat definition and measurement, which cannot be captured as a KPI and which will never be dressed up as a pretty piechart. Personally, I’m glad there are things which defy quantification; this gets closer to the core of who we truly are. We are beyond an external metric and we can rise above manipulation by numbers.

9. Go for the good of the whole.

One day I went for a walk with my mother around a lake and we passed a big group of runners, all men and of all ages. Then, after a substantial time and distance, we encountered some stragglers. My mother commented that they might have to hurry to catch up with the others. To which one replied, “Speed is a young man’s game – we have endurance!”

Going for the good of the whole might mean that you pace yourself. Or that you play your own game, not somebody else’s. It is the ability to step back and consider the entire picture. The immediate problem will still be there, but it will have a proper context. It may even cease to be a problem if you decide that things must unravel for the good of the whole.

I think what often gets in the way is our inclination to view everything as separate. We have been trained this way. As in my work is separate from my family is separate from my friendships is separate from my hobbies is separate from my health is separate from my spiritual practices is separate from my coffee habit. It is hard to consider the whole when you don’t consider the arm to be attached to the body.

Separateness is a pleasant fiction which helps us to organise our lives, but the interconnections are as numerous as they are obvious. Even something as simple as a food choice will impact my energy which will impact my work which will impact my mood which will give me mental bandwidth to give up coffee (hah – never!) You might be fixated on your work, but sometimes going for the good of the whole means that you give love and attention to something wildly different, knowing that this will feed back in some way at some time. It might give you renewed energy, perspective, subconscious processing time or inspiration.

And you might just find that how you do one thing is how you do everything.

My decision to quit law was disastrous for my short term financial health. It was a blow to my self-esteem because it attracted criticism both internal and external; prior to that point I had always been the good girl that works hard doing serious stuff. And there are parts of Australia that react to my being a life coach as if I had suddenly declared that I see fairies. But I truly believe it will be for the good of the whole because I can see its value and I will be supporting myself in a more sustainable way, doing something that I love and which allows me to get all the sleep that I need.

10. Expand time horizons.

We give the short term the most attention. Of course we do. It shouts loudest. It seems impossible to look at the long term without dealing with the short term first.

Yet Dana looks at this differently. She reminds us that actions taken now will have long term effects. And what we experience now is the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago. There is no long-term/short-term distinction.

Put another way, actions will have both a short-term and a long-term effect. And any experience will be both the short-term and long-term effect of a past action.

How does this help? I think we can be less hung up on the distinction. Investing in the long-term is actually an investment which will be felt in the now, but one day in the future. Which means we should pay attention to both. Focus on the good of the whole.

For most of us, paying attention to both usually means paying more attention to the long-term.

To give the long-term its due acknowledgment often requires a plan with a follow through. This is hardly groundbreaking news, so why do we struggle so much to go to the gym, knowing that it is a good long-term investment in health? Well, you may be experiencing the effects of the “scarcity trap”.

Researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir identified the phenomenon and explored some of its impact in their book The Scarcity Trap which was released in 2013. They explain that scarcity comes in different forms; you might be hungry, lonely, time-poor or broke. And yet, when suffering under a pervasive feeling of scarcity, the impact is the same; scarcity will diminish your mental capacity. Capacity which you need to support your concentration, self-control and long-term planning. The mind is hijacked by the object of the scarcity, leaving less for its other functionalities.

This is why arguments that the poor should just work harder and better are simply cruel. It is like two energiser bunnies running a race, one having depleted batteries. It is a matter of limitation, not effort. And arguments that the poor are rightly so are even crueler. It is not about inherent capacity; it about the ability to access that capacity.

I’m not going to pretend that it won’t take hard work to put yourself in the position where you will start to reap the benefits of your long-term planning. But you can plan so that your reduced capacity is taken into account. So if you know your willpower will be low, don’t take that credit card shopping or keep loads of junk food in the house. And you can catch your thinking so you are not confusing a lack of access to capacity with a lack of inherent capacity. You are not dumb; but put anybody in your situation and they would act dumber.

Extinction Rebellion has adopted a Native American principle which helps them to take the long-term into account when making decisions. They aim to create a world that is fit for the next seven generations to live in. I believe the original principle was to make every decision with the next seven generations in mind. So my question for you is, who or what do you want in mind when you make your decisions?

11. Expand thought horizons.

This part is tricky. Our life experiences will lead us across interdisciplinary lines. You may be an expert in one field but this will not provide the container for your life. Life is too messy for that. Your work, your experiences and your passions will lead you into new realms.

In this place the challenge becomes how to learn from the experts. This requires humility because we have to admit what we do not know. It requires perseverance to fully grasp the depths of their knowledge and contributions. But it also requires the ability to see the limitations of the expertise. To not get dazzled by the fancy badges and slick-sounding words. Experts have approached a problem using a specific framework which may or may not be appropriate. Their confidence can masquerade as knowledge. They are also sometimes downright wrong. Yet if we make the effort to truly understand what they are saying, and they do the same on our points of expertise, the result can be magical.

We are starting to understand now that crossing interdisciplinary lines can be enormously fruitful. It does not just represent a sharing of technical know how; it can also be the sharing of a worldview. This can cause you to revisit foundations which were previously beyond question. Or perhaps you mash things together to create something new. Like how Stephen Hawking was able to combine the theory of relativity and quantum theory to arrive at Hawking radiation.

12. Expand the boundary of caring.

Expanding the boundary of caring is an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of all living things. We suffer chronically from the myth of separateness. Of course, it is a useful ideology because it supports our capitalist structure. We must compete to get what we want! It is a dog eat dog world! Only the strong survive! Yet connection is so important to us that without the company of other humans we literally go insane. And we cannot survive independently of the ecosystems which support us.

Why is this a problem? It isn’t. Unless you are a sociopath, you can give up the myth of separateness and celebrate connection instead.

The boundary of caring is capable of expanding in all directions. Frequently, I find that my clients have neglected to expand the boundary of caring to themselves. Often it is done for the admirable purpose of self-improvement (as in if I constantly criticise and harass myself, I will be properly incentivised to do better).

Unfortunately, those are not the results. We simply respond better to kindness and understanding. Try this for an exercise. Take a moment in which you screwed up or were going through a difficult time. Then try to truly see yourself in that moment. See the places in which you were really trying, remember what you were believing and what you didn’t yet know and everything that was swirling around you. Then, from that place, see if there is anything to learn. Learning will be more valuable from this space because it is not laden with judgment.

Do we give up being practical to be moral? Dana puts this best when she says, “…most people know about the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe that which they know.”

For instance, if you were to become a vegan you might do so for moral reasons; your concern for the environment and your objection to animal cruelty. But you could end up healthier, financially better off and leave a smaller carbon footprint. A practical result.

Switching this around, say you pollute a waterway because the legal penalties are less than the profit you stand to gain, which is frequently the case. What seems like a financially sound decision is in fact a disaster; you are reducing the available clean water in this world to drink, water which you require alongside everybody else. And you fuel civil outrage, perhaps even unrest, which will ultimately make your business unsustainable and perhaps even strip you of your spoils. And unless you are a sociopath, you have just polluted your own conscience.

I’m not sure whether I am saying that what is good for the Earth is good for humans. Perhaps I am saying that what is truly good for humans must also be good for the Earth because of our interconnectedness (leaving another category of things which are good for the Earth, but not humans – say if all humans were to leave). What I do know is that if you expand the boundaries of caring, you are more likely to find those rules which are both moral and practical.

13. Celebrate complexity.

We bend over backwards to make order of this messy, chaotic world. In our quest for an orderly society we have more legislation and regulation than ever before, form-filling has become the new skill of our age and our buildings are increasingly less decorative.

Some of these efforts are immensely valuable. Take scientific inquiry – each time a prediction proves to be correct or incorrect, we can build on our knowledge.

But there is also a part of me that feels sad every time I see an overly manicured garden. Functional shopfronts. And a form that is so desperately trying to categorise your answers that all your answers become an explanation of how you don’t quite fit within a category.

I think the part of us that is obsessed with order, to the exclusion of everything else, is dangerous. It doubles the university fees for art courses, while dropping those for STEM subjects (which is what the Australian government has done). It makes it impossible for any one citizen to know all of the laws and regulations they are subject to; leading the way for selective enforcement (as former Chief Justice Gleeson comments in his speech made on 9 July 2001, The Growth of Legislation and Regulation). It delivers a society which will one day tell us that implanting a chip in our arms will keep us safer and make it easier to pay the household bills, a logic we will find hard to resist.

Dana suggests that we celebrate complexity because it is the source of many beautiful, strange and interesting things. My sense is that we have become a little scared of complexity. Perhaps because our society is more individualist than ever before. We feel unsupported. And so we conclude that the unknown is more likely to hurt than to help us.

On a personal level, I think we can celebrate the fact that you will spend a lifetime and never quite find a way to impose order on your life. It is in the space of the chaotic elements interacting with our knowledge, filtered by our curiosity and humility, that we create beauty and meaning.

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

How many times have you heard, “that’s just the way humans are – without rules, they will [insert horrible activity]”. Really? I think there is a disconnect between what we are shown and what we experience. I mean I know that my family cheat at cards sometimes, but I don’t truly believe they will collect the ears of their enemies if left to their own devices.

Sure, there are some genuine sociopaths out there. Sometimes we make them CEOs. But these aside, I think circumstances tend to create the rest of the dysfunction that we see. I also believe that these circumstances are sometimes created by our assumptions that people are inherently dysfunctional. Which then strengthens the assumptions, creating a vicious assumption-dysfunction loop. If you treat somebody like a criminal and cut off their opportunities, what do you expect?

This is not the popular view. We are taught to believe that rules are required to curb the worst excesses of our bad behaviour. Like the rule at a nature trail in my neighbourhood which prohibits cyclists from going over 15kms per hour. Without that rule, cyclists will run down the runners whenever they can. Because clearly they have the impulse to be monsters.

Here is the trap. We forget to weigh in the good, or don’t do it adequately. It may even be an impossible task, because how do we give due recognition to the noble deeds which are by definition unconditional and ego-free (i.e. usually not posted on social media)? Also, I would like to know how many of us refrain from murder because it is not something we feel like doing – and how many of us simply follow the rule telling us it is bad.

Perhaps I am hopelessly naive, but I will say this. Decide for yourself. And as you do, consider whether we have done enough to set up the conditions for harmonious living. You can be mindful that fear and tragedy sells because we are biologically primed to pay acute attention to matters which threaten our safety. Look within and around. Because no matter which view you ascribe to, you will find the evidence to support it. Personally, I would prefer to notice more of the good stuff.

Looking at the world’s many misdeeds, you may be tempted to lower your standard of goodness. This is what Dana urges us not to do; she asks that we keep the standard absolute and not weigh the bad more heavily than the good. Hold fast and hold strong. A timely reminder.

So there you have it. A set of guiding principles which factor in our lack of absolute knowledge and inability to fully predict and control our lives. None of this is to say that you cannot create a life that is personally meaningful, that is aligned with your integrity and values. In fact, these principles will help you to shake off the paint-by-numbers lifestyle in exchange for something messy, beautiful and utterly beyond the limitations of your imagination. Many thanks Dana!

A New New Year Resolution

This post will be shortish but hopefully sweet. I came across the first new year resolution that I could actually back and I wanted to share it. Ready? Here it is. “Do less, fail more.”

I cannot take credit for this idea – it landed in my inbox this morning, courtesy of my life coaching course creator, Martha Beck. No, it wasn’t a joke. It is beautifully ironic because following this instruction is likely to deliver greater results than the stock-standard “do more, more perfectly” resolution. And it might be a resolution that I can actually keep beyond January 8.

How is this possible?

We have eyes bigger than our stomachs when it comes to our plans. Dreaming big is all well and good, but not if you feel like you have to hack off giant chunks each day and be done by February. You struggle for a bit but eventually it shuts you down. The way around this is to craft small and easy steps which can be completed on any day. Build momentum. Do more on any day if you wish. But don’t set yourself up to give up. Aim to do less.

Then there is the failure piece. In my first post I talked about how a willingness to fail supports learning, but to drive the point home, I refer you to a big-time failure – Albert Einstein. His many errors are detailed by Carlo Rovelli in an article collected in his book, “There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness“. These errors included publishing numerous mistakes across many fields and frequently changing his mind, sometimes presenting a theory, then arguing against it, then adopting it again.

The author is not being unkind. He instead underscores the key role that failure had in the development of one of the world’s greatest scientific minds. This is because the many failures reflected Einstein’s courage to experiment with ideas and to revise his own opinions. And we don’t remember Einstein for his failures. Comforting stuff if you are thinking about trading in perfectionism for a willingness to try.

The list of addition

The backwards approach seems to work for new year resolutions, so perhaps we can do the same with our “to-do” lists. It popped into my head this morning that we could create a “list of addition” instead. Here is how it works.

Step one

Start with the premise that you are complete. There are very few things that you absolutely need to do in this moment. And the strictly necessary things are usually quite simple. Like breathing.

Are you yelling at me right now? Of course there are things that must be done! If I don’t write thank-you cards I’lll be disowned from the family! If I don’t obey my boss I’ll get fired! If I don’t wear pink on Wednesdays I’ll be thrown out of the group!

This might sound like life-coach word trickery, but technically you don’t need to do any of those things. It is just that you don’t care for the consequences. And fair enough, they sound horrible. The point is that these are choices dressed up as things you have to do. They are in fact trade-offs. You work in that horrible job in exchange for the measly benefits and to avoid the hassle of finding a new one.

Why should we care about the language we use? Why does it matter if we say “I choose to” as opposed to “I have to”?

There are three benefits I can see. The first being that it just feels better. Try saying both out loud and see if there is a difference. If it feels better then you will do things better, with more energy. Second, it keeps you focused on the objective. Put another way, you are more likely to remember why you are doing that thing rather than feeling resentful about the task. Finally, if you are crystal clear about it being a choice, it opens you up to the possibility of making other choices or using your creativity to improve the experience of your selected choice.

Step Two

Once you have accessed this feeling state of completeness, you can tackle the day’s tasks. But this time, don’t write a list of things that you have to do. Go out and start doing things. Or not. And then add to the list each time that you complete something. The list will start empty and will be gradually filled. It might be modest, but it definitely won’t be stressful because everything on it will be done. This list will make you feel good, not bad.

Don’t worry, you won’t forget the important things. But if you are worried about forgetting some administrative tasks, you could play with adding a sub-list called something like “basic contributions to functional living”.

Play. Keep it light. Don’t like step two? Just do step one. Most importantly, don’t allow to-do lists to add heaviness above and beyond any heaviness attached to the tasks themselves.

I will leave you with a nice little quote from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (translation by Stephen Mitchell), “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” Let that twist your mind like a pretzel. Happy New Year everyone.

I Just Want To Be Happy?

Should we all strive to be as happy as this Genevan donkey appears to be? ( Well, assuming my interpretation of animal signalling is right and it’s not attacking the photographer.)

I have been thinking about happiness these past few weeks. In particular, how I fail on all of the traditional and major metrics of “getting it together”, owning no home and having no marriage, children numbering the statistical average, pet dog, stable and established career and, most upsetting of all, I still haven’t learnt how to make a hummus that isn’t bland.

I am old and wise enough to know that acquiring these things will not automatically lead to happiness. And that applying a general standard to any specific case only gets you so far. I think this is generally known – I often received the advice “just do what makes you happy” when I started vocalising my doubts about continuing in law. But even that advice contains its own traps.

This post is not about the meaning of happiness. Sheesh, I have other things to do today. But I do set out certain myths and cultural messages which contribute to our unhappiness, even as they suggest they contain the answer.

Cultural messages which probably don’t help you feel happy (even as they purport to)

Our culture is obsessed with planning and doing. Want a fulfilling life? Keep busy, do things! We are impressed with the high-achievers who squeeze every productive minute out of every productive day. The problem is that very little space is left for falling apart, pivoting in a new direction or enjoying what we have achieved.

I find this most annoying (yes, precisely because I recently fell apart and pivoted in a new direction and one day don’t want to work so hard). And part of what made my recent transition from lawyer to life coach so uncomfortable was the pressure to have an identity. Because those things that I cited above in the introduction are really just institutions that hold our identities; marriage, the workforce, the economy.

So you may find it extremely uncomfortable if lose your story. Either you are thrown into a new set of circumstances – good or bad – or you simply change. Suddenly how you make sense of things, and what you consider important, shifts. Then comes the pressure to figure it all out and take action, now.

But rushing to find a new story to avoid the discomfort of being nobody nowhere can be dangerous. You will be tempted to find replacements for what you have lost or given up (think rebound relationships). At my lowest I would start searching for legal jobs, even though I had just left a perfectly good one. But you don’t need an identity to be happy (or at the very least, the lack of an identity need not add to your dissatisfaction). In fact, this state of not knowing is powerful and can be a time of great imagination and creativity. If you can struggle against it a little less.

What about money then? Aren’t we expected to have some, preferably lots? Wouldn’t this make us happy? Yes and no. We get confused. Having money gets you (legal) access to resources. And having access to any resource from a baseline of zero greatly contributes to our wellbeing. (Acquiring your first blanket will feel awesome.) Then we assume that any additional money makes us happy in the same proportion. (Acquiring ten blankets will not make you feel ten times as awesome.) Once we have enough for our basic needs and a little bit more, money tends to deliver less and less satisfaction.

What happens if we don’t earn this money? Here is where I assume the “just do what makes you happy” advice meets a limitation because if that happy lifestyle does not make us money, we fail to be “responsible”. Too bad if you just want to hang out with family all day or love writing poetry.

Political philosopher Yascha Mounk explains that the term responsibility (in political usage) used to mean a moral duty to help and support others; now it has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. The result? People who need assistance feel that they have failed in this duty, even when playing a game in which the odds are stacked against them – individual responsibility taken for a collective failing. And the rest of us, observing those who fall through the cracks, feel insecure and want to hoard even more.

To close off this unholy trinity of cultural influences that raise the blood pressure, we then have the promises of consumerism. And consumerism has come to influence our worldview. (If you have any doubts that consumerism is now rampant, check your email inbox.)

In his wonderful new book, Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present, Yanis Varoufakis speaks of the most liberating of epiphanies through one of his characters; that there is more to life than indulging desires and eliminating pain. Why is this relevant? Because as consumers, we have been taught to indulge desires and eliminate pain wherever possible. All for a reasonable fee.

But wait, I hear you say, what’s the problem with that? Gen, you don’t properly appreciate the wonders of the market economy!

Well probably true, but a consumerist lifestyle certainly doesn’t promote living in accordance with your values. Values which will ask you to forgo pleasure and tolerate discomfort. Want to buy some water but care about the environment? You go thirsty instead of buying that plastic, bottled water. Forgot your reusable bag at the supermarket? You will awkwardly carry an armful of dog food tins home.

Living a meaningful life requires a long game with no guaranteed outcomes. It demands trust in something that cannot be quantified, packaged and sold; a sense that you are following your own and best path. There will be unseemly mess, murky confusion, epic failure and great gnashing of teeth. In this struggle you will feel alone. You will look imperfect, thanks to the miracle of Instagram filters. But the pay off is so worth it. And, back to the point of this post, it is happiness compatible. (And yes, please rightly point out that I have a business in helping people find their own path, but I don’t claim to have the answer and only my clients know if they’ve found it or not.)

So what we can do is be aware that these narratives are in circulation. They seemingly provide you with a script to follow to find happiness. In reality, they usually make things worse. Yet they are not instructions to follow. You can decide whether or not to adopt the belief. If you don’t, for example, buy into the belief that you must always have a plan for your life, then experiment with new thoughts that serve you better e.g. I won’t waste time planning unless I know what I want to create. I’m not saying to delude yourself; choose a thought that resonates as a truth (hint: it will feel liberating rather than imprisoning). Then find the evidence that supports that belief as a reality check.

It is not only the cultural messages that lead us astray, but there are also a number of myths and misunderstandings about happiness. I discuss two major ones below. No doubt there are more, but please kindly refer to the “I have other things to do today” comment above.

Myth 1: It is not normal to be unhappy. I am unhappy. I must be abnormal.
Reality: We have a number of emotional settings of which happiness is one.

You feel happy, but you don’t become it. We are a continuum of emotions. We are not meant to be in any one feeling state for any period of time, whether happiness or sadness. Unfortunately this is not the message we receive. Consider these questions: “are you happy?” and “do I make you happy?”. We do not tack on the qualification “in this moment”. Built into those questions is the assumption that happiness is the desirable end state that can either be achieved or caused. But at best you can only answer by giving an average reading.

As psychologist Dr Russ Harris points out in his illuminating book The Happiness Trap, believing that you’re defective if you’re not happy, and that everyone else is happy except you (the natural follow on from the first belief), creates even more unhappiness. Yep, this traps us big time.

Dr Harris explains that the normal thinking process of a healthy human being will eventually lead to psychological suffering. The mind has become increasingly skilled at predicting and avoiding danger. It will also seek to protect you from rejection by the group, by comparing you with other members of the clan. Also, to improve your chances of survival you need to “get more and get better”. Better weapons, more food, better shelter, more children. In summary, this means “that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen.” (The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris, pages 4-5).

So we are hardwired for struggle. Yet we do not look at our suffering as natural. We like to think, or most fear, that we are broken deep down and that there is no hope. In fact, we are functioning exactly as designed and, when looking at the evolutionary rationale for these functions, you can see that we are exquisitely beautiful.

That is not to say that we don’t seek help when we need it – especially for trauma and mental illness. But it might also help to know that for the vast majority we are simply having a normal response to an abnormal environment (especially with the modern lifestyle being at odds with the conditions we evolved in) and that our struggle is not a source of shame.

Of course, it is a real shame that we cannot control what we think and feel (another myth). But we can lessen the impact of our painful thinking and unpleasant feelings so that we can create the life that we want. This is a large part of what I do as a coach. And you might just find that the things that you love most in this world actually bring you a whole range of emotions. You might love your toddler beyond imagining, but also wish Peppa Pig an untimely end.

And so the reality of this myth is that believing it will just add an additional layer of pain – unless it is questioned.

Myth 2: I haven’t found happiness yet. I have to try harder. Then I will find it.
Reality: Seeking happiness will not make you happy. But it will blow up in your face.

Seeking happiness by looking to the future means you are likely to miss the present and whatever delights it contains. I have a client who wisely and recently pointed out that in seeking great happiness you miss the happiness that small things can provide. We apply a filter to our experience which is not to our benefit. In searching you develop a tunnel vision which keeps you blind in other areas. Areas which might be sweet, tender, awkward and funny. In short, enjoyable. Human.

Another consequence is that wanting to be happy means you are less willing to be unhappy. Why is this a problem? Well, as a coach, I love mind-body work because it helps us to have the full human experience. To feel what we feel. And it is a package deal. Good comes with bad. You cannot selectively numb the painful emotions because, as the American professor and researcher Brené Brown explains, that numbs the positive ones too.

Looking back, I can see that for vast tracks of time I used to inhabit a state that was either pleasantly bland or mildly anxious. Now I prefer to live more richly because I know that this is the only way to love and to serve this world as I want to. The price? I have to be willing to tolerate discomfort and pain. Better this than half loving somebody because I am already preempting the day when they will leave (either voluntarily or through death).

To be clear, I’m not saying to give up on improving your life. You have great power to change the circumstances that set up the conditions for happiness. If you hate filling out forms you might want to rethink that data entry job. Love Game of Thrones? Don’t watch the disappointing season finale. What I am saying is that rather than selecting happiness as a goal to be achieved, you look for what is beautiful right now. And you open yourself up, little by little, to the full human experience. Perhaps then happiness will find you, like a bee comes to a flower that has opened.

Let me finally finish this post (concluding comments)

Rather than focusing on happiness, I’m more interested in accessing a sense of peace in the present. Sounds a bit wishy-washy, but there you have it. If I can, this keeps me connected and open to the experience I am having. In the meantime, I try to embrace the total experience of living, which goes beyond happiness but also strengthens happiness when it is found. To mindfully set up the conditions to create the life that I want. And to know myself so I am not so easily swayed by the million messages out there that provide a script for good living. I might fail on a number of cultural metrics but that’s okay. They are just stories.

Living: a Collection of Small Details

Small details comprise a morning and a life. This is what Emily St. John Mandel writes in her book, the apocalyptic masterpiece Station Eleven, as she describes the final morning of the catalytic character, Arthur Leander:

He closed the fridge door, made his last breakfast – scrambled eggs – and showered, dressed, combed his hair, left for the theatre an hour early so he’d have time to linger with a newspaper over his second-to-last coffee at his favourite coffee place, all of the small details that comprise a morning, a life.

Cheery, right? My desire to share this definitely confirms my status as a much sought after dinner guest and conversationalist. Or sci-fi nerd.

I found this passage haunting, elegiac, and strangely comforting with its message. Savour the small details. Remember that these details make up a life.

We all know this. But to be fair it is awfully hard to implement. Far easier to be annoyed by the tiny tasks on our plate, especially when we see them as interfering with the big, important stuff that we really want to do.

So this post honours the small details of life, the innumerable trivial occurrences that are in fact not innumerable at all, and each precious, because one day there will be no more. Below are my four suggestions for how we might savour these moments; the alternative, at least for me, is to miss them or to actively resent their intrusion. Which is a funny way to treat my life, if you think about it.

Be present

No surprises here. To be accurate, this is not a suggestion but rather the prerequisite state for savouring the small details of living. Savouring can only be done in the present; it is the only way to access the richness of the experience. And even if the experience is unpleasant, how else can you creatively and meaningfully respond to what is going on?

Some, such as Eckhart Tolle, would argue that now is the only state that truly exists. I happen to agree, but you don’t need to bend your mind around this. Sure, you could argue that your imagination would do a better job than reality, but – leaving Walter Mitty type disorders aside – can that truly compare to laughing with abandon or being immersed in a state of flow as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes?

A good place to start? Curb your ambition. It sounds wonderful to be present all the time, but the mind will generate thought, as it is designed to do, and this can often drag us back into the past or create imaginings about the future.

The problem is that this type of thinking is useful less often than you would think. Thoughts can be repetitive. As critical as a women’s fashion magazine. As useful as Trump interpreting a graph. Moreover, the body will react to what you are thinking. It just gets confused when you turn up to your administrative law exam and there is no sabre-tooth tiger to justify the adrenaline the mind was convinced was required. (Although I kind of wish a tiger had turned out to that exam, it was terrible.)

So don’t aim for a day. Or even an hour or a minute. Aim for a few seconds. Accept that the mind will happily scamper off with all the focus of a toddler tripping on red candy. Cool. When that happens, gently bring the mind back to the present, again and again. You become stronger and more practised every time you bring the mind back. Then you will start to notice how many small but potentially delightful experiences – say, sipping a coffee – are liable to slip into mindless, mechanical motion.

Consider small adjustments

All well and good, but what if your collection of small details are genuinely shoddy? Well, being present does not require that you passively accept an unacceptable state of affairs. As an aside, this unfortunately is the part that most corporate mindfulness initiatives miss; yes, you should be mindful (more productive), but hah! no, we will not make any structural changes – like when my old firm suggested that we, a bunch of out of shape and overworked lawyers, should exercise more and increase billable hours. At this stage, you might want to consider making your own small adjustments.

Of course, a small adjustment may not be sufficient and dramatic change could well be required, leading you to quit law in the middle of the next great economic recession while living overseas on a working visa, just like me. (Dramatic change and my life planning skills I think is the subject for another post.) Hopefully that is not necessary, because what is overlooked, time and time again, is the impact of a small adjustment. Then imagine adding up the impact of a number of small adjustments over time and in combination – this could change your life.

My coaching course creator Martha Beck suggests using the Three B’s to correct your course if any of the activities in your daily schedule make you feel heavy, revolted or weak (tip: consciously picture doing each task and notice how your body responds). The Three B’s are: either bag an uninspiring activity (organising your paper clips by colour can indeed wait); barter it (perhaps your partner can do your hated chore in exchange for you doing a chore you don’t really mind); or better the activity by adding things you enjoy (play your favourite music while sorting paper clips).

Changing your mindset from resentment to creation has these additional benefits:

  • showing you the places in which you are empowered to alter the course of your life, rather than diverting all that energy into an Eeyore-inspired sulk;
  • enabling you to see clearly the trade that you have in fact made. You might hate doing the laundry and be resigned to the fact that it must be done by you, but wearing clean clothes definitely makes it easier to flirt with the coffee guy.

Finally, let me introduce you to a rule that has served me well over the years. Unless forced to, I never think about difficult or distressing subject matter (like what can be read into my inability to keep houseplants alive) when I am tired or stressed. Everything feels like too much and the only plan I am likely to make is to give up, or at least I would do so if I had the energy and self-respect to make a decision. The problem doesn’t change if I defer it to another time, but I do. Having bandwidth can make all the difference to your ability to gainfully tackle an issue, so it could be that your small adjustment is all about timing.

Practise gratitude

I’m sure that if we all practised gratitude then we would become better people, but this suggestion is actually about tweaking your radar. That is to say, noticing more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. Obviously, we do not and cannot process all of the information presented to us; but luckily there is an option to strengthen your ability to take note of what delights and inspires you, thereby improving your life. And a lot of this vests in – you got it – the little details.

If you need a refresher on how powerful our ability to focus can be, I suggest you watch this study:

To be clear, I am not talking about turning a blind eye to the injustices of this world. We must look deeply into the eyes of such horrors; the most uncomfortable aspect being that what concerns us externally is usually mirrored in some form internally. But when we do, our focus can again shift. Instead of finding an enemy to hate, control or destroy, we can look at how the situation is challenging us to become better, more compassionate, more egalitarian, aware, creative, kind.

To develop my gratitude muscle, I like to list the things I am grateful for whenever I am waiting for whatever form of London transport has just been delayed. Today’s list includes: having a good night’s sleep, eating a super crunchy apple, the comment I got on my last post (somebody actually read it!), the fact that I am just very behind but no longer chronically behind in responding to texts and emails, the amazing ability that my legs have to convey me around to places I want to go (usually coffee shops), coffee shops and my recent discovery of Mirna Valerio (trail and ultra runner, anti-racist activist). If you get creative and go for quantity, that list will never end.

Question the assumption that small means unimportant

We have trouble valuing the little things. We think that in order to have a meaningful life, we must do important things with maximum reach and impact.

But what if, instead of creating a fan-base of millions, you created the perfect garden. Who is to say that is not exactly what your neighbourhood needs? I once had a friend say to me that he wanted to do something meaningful with his life. But I knew that friend to be kind and generous – a rare, true friend – and it struck me that perhaps he had already done so. Supporting and positively altering the lives of all those he meets.

Sometimes it is not about doing anything at all but about the quality of being. The best caregivers know this; it is about human connection and keeping company in suffering, not about finding the perfect thing to say or do. This is staggeringly important and yet our culture remains obsessed about productivity, even if that leads to reckless, runaway, mutative growth. It is a productivity mindset that would measure the minutes a caregiver spent with somebody and require them to fill out forms, detailing what they had achieved during that time.

Very conveniently for me, Charles Eisenstein has written a beautiful essay, The Age of We Need Each Other, on our cultural obsession with big impact. His realisation is as follows:

…our concepts of big impact versus small impact are part of what needs to be healed. Our culture validates and celebrates those who are out there with big platforms speaking to millions of people, while ignoring those who do humble, quiet work, taking care of just one sick person, one child, or one small place on this earth.

When I meet one of these people, I know that their impact doesn’t depend on their kind action going viral on the internet and reaching millions of people. Even if no one ever knows and no one ever thanks them for taking in that old woman with dementia and sacrificing a normal life to care for her, that choice sends ripples outward through the fabric of causality. On a five hundred or five thousand year timescale, the impact is no smaller than anything a President does.

The above suggests that we could revisit our notions of big and small impact, but ultimately it is about giving up big impact as our object. We could simply do our work well, with love and in service. And whether that has big or small impact should be unconnected to our motivation and is wholly unconnected to our importance.

Let me conclude by saying good luck to Extinction Rebellion as they march in the streets of London, this weekend, kicking off the next phase of rebellion!

How to Suck at New Things Like a Champ

Here begins my blog. The very first entry.

There was so much I wanted to write about that my first draft came out as twelve pages of incomprehensible babble.  This version is certainly an upgrade, I have constructed full sentences and everything.  But you may wonder, what is the point of posting something unless it is exquisitely crafted, witty and has a proper title?  Well, I needed to do something real.

If perfectionism is your jam and curse, you may understand the sentiment.   

Let me paint the context for you. I had some fine perfectionist tendencies as a kid.  Then I got some help – I entered a competitive, pressure-cooker environment known as law school, learning helpful things along the way like how not to relate to normal people. I then attained master perfectionist status as a practising lawyer, agonising over drafts and reading emails 100 times before they were sent (just as I know that clients agonised over their replies – “thx” or “gtg”). The highlight was working on a case concerning a badly placed comma in a contractual clause.  Who notices these types of things?  Lawyers do.  

Here’s the crunch. There is a time and a place for perfect comma usage. But allowing your fear of getting things wrong to guide your behaviour can be crippling. It stops you from getting that real-world practise which you need to nurture your gifts and bring your creative imaginings to life. I would love to write the perfect blog entry for you. But such a thing is not possible and my striving to do so would mean that I would be publishing once a year, on a good year.

Let’s pause and extend ourselves some kindness.  It’s damn uncomfortable being a beginner, especially as we age.  Doing something without the guarantee of being good at it or having it financially remunerate you is not so easy in today’s society. Want to play the piano? We find ourselves lamenting that we did not begin at age three and so will never “catch up”. Learning Mandarin quickly becomes depressing when we focus on the thousands of characters we don’t know and not the ten characters it took a fortnight to learn. Going back to uni feels uncomfortable when we realise we grew up on the music that the next generation now ironically discovers when indulging their vintage music phase.

We glorify the expert, not the beginner.  The message we receive is that it is better to stick with something you don’t like but you’re good at, rather than do something you do like but you’re bad at.  Yet sometimes the humble open-curiosity of a beginner is exactly what a situation requires.  And other times we just need to stretch our brains to learn something new (which funnily enough can have the result of enhancing our expertise in other areas).

It is a funny kind of paradox that letting go of the outcome helps, especially if you are highly invested in the activity.  Quitting your obsession with being good (as that relates to others and the future) will free up your energy because you can now occupy the present. Relaxing helps with performance, as every elite athlete and musician is well aware. And who knows, perhaps letting go of the outcome increases your enjoyment of the practise so you can come back to it more readily.

If your activity requires any type of publication to the world, it helps also to accept that you have no control over the response of others.  Once you have released something it is up to others to reject, praise or ignore your tender heart offering. Respect that people have the right to choose. You can control your response to their response, but not doing something because you are bothered by your thinking about what other people may think about you is… well, you can see the trap.

So why not try starting something new.  Do it because you want to do it and not because it would look good on a c.v.  Be genuinely curious about your subject matter.  View your “failures” as additional data points.  Suck at it.  In fact, if you haven’t been screwing up then this is probably a sign that you are not stretching yourself.  Make sure that the process has inherent value for you.  If this is true, it will be easier to let go of the outcome.  Release things before they feel perfect; good enough will do.  And eat some chocolate for goodness sake, you did good. 

Obviously, there will be times when nothing less than perfection will do.  But your chance of performing at this crucial point will depend on all of your learning which preceded it.  That is, all the learning garnered by your willingness to fail, again and again. If you treat yourself with kindness then you will learn what you need to know to make the next attempt better.

Imagine a world in which our politicians and leaders felt free to own up to their mistakes, were frank in their admission that they could have done something better, and, perhaps of equal importance, could accurately explain what they did right. Do you think they would do a better job?

What if our kids felt the same?  What if they understood that life was not a series of accomplishments, in which you burn time between accolades because the journey is never as important.  What if they were encouraged to learn without the weight of the future being on their shoulders for every single thing?  What if we shifted the emphasis from getting the right answer to instead nurturing a sense of wonderment and joy at all the things there is to learn?

Our relationship to learning has even greater significance in the context of the climate emergency. Our response needs to be coordinated and creative. It needs to step beyond the worldview and the structures which created it. And guess what – we are going to screw up at points.  We have to be alive to the fact that any setback will be hijacked by people who say “well there’s the evidence for why we shouldn’t bother” or “let’s revert to tried and tested methods, which have served us so well – new coal mine anyone?”.   We have to be willing to be humble and not give up when the haters of this world lazily criticise our efforts.  Honour the learning process and honour your bravery.  We need to learn better.

I’m going to post this blog entry.  Chances are it will be soundly ignored.  Perhaps it will irritate the grammatically conscientious amongst us.  You may disagree with every sentence. 

To all this, I say: thx.