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Archive for resilience

Grief: The Elephant in the Workplace

 

Sheryl Sandbergs new book ‘Option B’ has received wide attention because of her profile as COO of Facebook, but its’ real importance is that she has brought into the open a universal experience that receives little attention, that of grief at work. In a society that looks to massage grief into invisibility after the immediate aftermath of a death, she shares how the loss of her husband impacted on every part of her life: from suddenly  becoming a single parent, to  dealing with the demands of her role when her brain was overwhelmed with the weight of loss.  She shatters the myth that we pick up where we left off once the funeral is over, and speaks openly of her lack of focus, her frequent tears, and her memory lapses.  Her colleagues were generous in their support, often the bereaved perceive their colleagues as less than supportive.

 

They are silent for fear of saying the wrong thing.   They are embarrassed as to how they will deal with the emotions of a colleague so avoid the topic, or offer a mundane expression of empathy ‘I’m sorry for your loss”,  before moving onto business. They ask ‘how are you?’, as though there can be an authentic answer to describe the reality of what the person is experiencing.  As the saying goes, “Other than that, how was the play Mrs Lincoln?” The offer is made,”is there anything I can do?” putting the onus on the person  to define an appropriate  action, knowing the one action they want, the return of their loved one cannot be delivered.

 

This book will be read because of Sandberg’s career success, but her experience is no different from any other employee, so what can we all take from it to normalise both loss and responses to loss at work.

  • There is no way of knowing if you are saying the right thing, but it  is worth taking the risk of asking the person how they are today. It acknowledges that reactions change day to day, while the bland, ‘how are you?’, invites the platitude  ‘Fine’, that both parties know is a lie.
  • Not naming the elephant in the room of the death of a partner, parent, child or even pet, does not make it easier for the bereaved. It simply makes them feel there is something shameful in the death of someone they love.
  • Don’t ask if there is something you can do – offer to do something.
  • There is a fine balance between offering to take on work for a grieving colleague and their feeling diminished by the off.  Check  in if it would be welcome if you took on a meeting, delivered a presentation, took on an assignment to reduce their workload – or will simply compound their sense that their brain has deserted them.
  • Don’t offer reassurance ‘time is a great healer’, two years on you’ll have moved on or once you’ve worked through the  Kubler Ross grief cycle you’ll be fine.  Grief is not a  programme to be completed, it is a set of states  that the individual will revisit for as long as it takes.
  • Don’t assume your responses to loss will be theirs. Better to be interested in their response to their loss than to see yours as of interest to them (at least in the early stages it won’t be).
  • Give affirmation of what they are doing well at work, as they will be focussed on what feels strange or meaningless, what they have forgotten and when they could not focus.

Most centrally, treat them as the person you have always known. They do not  have a disease, but grief is a large hole in a person.  That hole will never disappear,  but  over time they will start wrapping layers of life around it.  Those layers are paper thin at the beginning, bu with  time they will become thick enough to protect them and to enable them to create a different life.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Advertity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy  is published by  Penguin Random House

Resilient Leadership: The Performance Difference Between Pressure and Stress

If you are a leader you are subject to pressure, because pressure is the demand to perform well.  You may love pressure.  You know you do your best work under pressure.  When the deadline looms is when you kick into gear.  It is because of your ability to absorb pressure that you have been given a leadership role.

 

But – what happens when the pressure becomes uncomfortable?  When the demands are more than you can manage.  When your sense of being in control disappears.  When you feel unsupported, and when your emotions become entangled in the situation. In those conditions pressure becomes stress.

I have yet to meet any leader who thrives on stress, and yet it has become an accepted condition of working life.  It is often only when stress shouts loudly, through showing up as physical or mental illness that it gets attention.

Much stress does not shout loud enough to be noticed.   It silently simmers under the surface,  whilst shaping how people show up at work.  Many leaders struggle through tough times, whilst feeling depleted, and hoping no one will notice.  The reality is it is noticed, even if it is not acknowledged.   Team members sense that their leader is less available to them and less connected to their work. They notice mood changes and loss of optimism.  In turn their sense of commitment to their work, their optimism about what can be achieved and their willingness to stick at the tough stuff is directly impacted by what they are noticing  in their leader.

 

Stress impacts on the whole system around a leader (both at work and at home). However, no matter how heavy the pressure, stress is not an inevitable.  Sitting between the two is the amazing quality resilience.  A quality which we all have, but which at times can desert us.   When present, it buffers us so that we can deal with the difficult. As we lose access to it, our susceptibility to stress increases.

 

 

 

The challenge for leaders is how to retain access to those resilience qualities that life has already provided, and how to increase resilience capacity to work through difficult times.

 

The answer I have discovered through research and many years of working with leaders as an executive coach, is that resilient leaders are skilled at learning how to manage their energy sources:

The three energy sources

 

Physical energy is shaped by how you take care of your body as a resource that deserves to be looked after well, if you are to do good work.  Rather seeing the  head as the source of your skill and the body as a neglected attachment, resilient leaders accept that the well-being of the body affects the power of the brain.   How well your body is resourced through food, exercise and sleep directly affects how well your brain functions.

Mental energy is depleted by the time we give to going over what is unchangeable or catastrophising the future. It is reduced by expending energy in multiple directions rather than focusing on what is most important now.  We can increase our mental energy by:

  • Learning how to challenge our thoughts, rather than being undermined by them
  • Considering how your purpose as an individual and your purpose as a leader are aligned.

 

Emotional energy

It is hard to sustain emotional energy when feeling pessimistic about the present and future.  It is hard to sustain positive emotions when life is so absorbed by work that there is little energy left for life outside of work.  Sustaining emotional energy is helped by:

  • Being able to recognise what is OK alongside all the challenges of work
  • Having supporters who can give a loving boot to help you move forward
  • Ensuring you do things that enable you to use other parts of you; whether that is helping out your child’s rugby team, singing your heart out in a choir, playing a sport (no matter how badly) or writing poetry. When we do something different we re-balance and renew.

Since every leader requires resilience to deal with the demands of the day to day, as well as those events which destabilise us, every leader owes it to themselves to manage their own resources well alongside those of the organisation they work for.

To find out more about how you can develop resilience as a leader then click to this link for details of my new Resilient Leadership on line programme

http://instituteofleadership.org.uk/wp/course/resilient-leadership/

 

Are you reflecting or ruminating: the key difference in staying resilient

Talk of being stressed by work has become a norm. The blurring of lines between work and non work because of technology, means there is no longer a buffer between work and home. The volume of work constantly increases because of what technology can deliver. The demand to do more with less at speed and the complexity of many problems with no clear answer are all markers of the pressure to perform. But does pressure mean stress? Two people facing those same pressures will react differently. One will seem to take it in their stride; the other will experience the demands as stressful. Even if they do not admit to their feelings, the stressed worker will notice changes in their ability to control their emotions, to work productively and to maintain a sense of optimism about outcomes. It may even make them ill as their immune system is unable to support the demands they are making on it.

Or consider the converse, someone whose work seems to involve little pressure, but who shows every sign of being stressed. So what is the difference between pressure and stress? This is the question Dr Derek Rogers, a research psychologist from the University of York has been exploring for the last 35 years, and his conclusion is that the difference is simple. Stress and loss of resilience come from the propensity to ruminate rather than to reflect. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with pressure. It is simply the expectation of performance, and many people say they thrive on that pressure to deliver. Stress comes when the demands produce thoughts which are played in the brain like a scratched record. The thoughts generated by the emotions in the moment of demand become trapped in the faulty groove of the vinyl, and we cannot change the record.

What does rumination look like? You have had a bad day. One team member announces they are resigning at a key point in the project. Your boss calls you in at the end of the day and tells you that you need to get the project finished even earlier, and as an afterthought adds that you did not get the tone right when you presented to the Exec Committee earlier in the day. On such a day it is understandable if your thoughts as you go home are dominated by anger at the team member for making your life more difficult and concerns about how easily you will replace them. Add to this your feelings of failure at not delivering the presentation well and possible consequences for your career in terms of how you are seen by senior leaders. Then there is anxiety about how your boss will appraise you if you don’t deliver on the delivery date.

Those reactions are normal, and a good night’s sleep can provide perspective. Rumination starts when you cannot let go of the thoughts and feelings. When for days and weeks after you are worrying about your reputation and you are seeing catastrophe ahead in terms of the project’s delivery. You hold onto the emotions the events of one day generated. You do not sleep well and when you wake in the middle of the night your brain immediately fills with negative thoughts. On the bad day your body recognised you were feeling threat and prepared you to fight, flee or freeze as adrenaline flooded your system. Weeks later if you are still replaying the situations in your brain your body replays the same reactions. It is now also calling on cortisol to help you deal with the danger which it thinks you arefacing, and cortisol called on over time both compromises the immune system and lays down fat. More causes for negative rumination.

One of the differentiators between humans and other species according to York and his co-author Nick Petrie is our ability to ruminate, and to re-experience emotions and bodily sensations long after the event. If you surprise a pet cat by walking into the room quietly, it will spring into the air, arch its back and be prepared to fight. Once it recognises you as its loving owner it will relax lie back on the rug and go back to sleep. It will not be asking itself questions such as ‘’Why did I not notice the door opening?’, or ‘What would have happened to me if it had been a big dog? The cat simply recognises the reality of the situation as it is.

So rather than the pressures of the job in themselves causing stress, it is our propensity to ruminate which is a key contributor. Our ability to deal with pressure without becoming stressed lies in being able to reflect rather than to ruminate. So what is the difference?

  • Reflection comes from dealing with the present moment. It comes from focussing on ‘what is the situation right now?’, and then drawing up plans that deal with that reality. It is the difference between constantly thinking about the possible cost to the project of a member leaving and becoming anxious, and wondering what you could have done differently to keep them, and focussing on the reality of what you can do to minimise the impact of their leaving ,and what you can renegotiate to make the project workable.
  • Reflection starts from noticing when you are in what York and Petrie call ‘waking sleep’ i.e. spending time trying to rewrite history or predicting the future, and then asking yourself how useful those minutes of thought have been to solving the difficulty. It is a practical application of mindfulness: a noticing of the emotions and thoughts which are filling your brain, in order to be able to challenge the process, by bringing you back to the present.

So how do you shift from rumination to reflection, given that going over things in our head as though we can change what has passed or write what will pass is an engrained practice in many of us.

Get out of Waking Sleep

Waking sleep is when we are not focussed on the task in hand but are daydreaming about the past or a projected negative future, with all the emotions that go with those thoughts. Getting out of waking sleep and into reflection means:

  • Notice yourself. Mindfulness asks you to notice your thoughts as just thoughts and not the truth. Catching yourself and being able to say ‘I’m daydreaming again’ is the first step.
  • Question yourself. Notice how long you have been in daydreaming mode, and then ask yourself how useful those minutes have been. What new ideas or solutions have come from the replaying of emotionally charged thoughts.
  • Ground yourself. What is the situation right now? Rather than ruminating on ‘Will I have a job next year?’, or’ What if the deadline is not met?’ Ask yourself – ‘What is the reality at this moment, and what does that enable me to do?

We can never work without pressure, but those who succeed have the ability to stop themselves derailing by focusing their energies on reflection, rather than rumination.

Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success Derek Roger and Nick Petrie. (McGraw Hill Education)

Confessions of a Failed Mindfulness Practitioner

Zen stones in water

What if you know mindfulness is good for you, but you still find reasons why it can’t be fitted into your day.   What if you have studied innumerable raisins close up in the service of mindful attention but you still don’t like raisins.  What if your mind is always full but not of the thoughts and feelings that are helpful.  What do you do instead?

Mindfulness has entered the mainstream.  There is hardly a leadership programme that does not include it.   Major plcs as diverse as PWC, Glaxo SmithKline and Google provide programmes and even special space for mindfulness breaks during the day.  Harvard University offers it to students, and  state schools include it as part of examination preparation.  The 8 week programme of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat Zinn to help clients with symptoms of stress and anxiety is now offered far beyond its original mental health setting.  When high street retailer, Tesco, teaches mindfulness to staff at store level it is a signal that it is now so commonplace that a backlash is inevitable, and it is beginning to happen.  Why is that?  There is plentiful evidence of its efficacy when it becomes a committed practice.  There are MRI scans which show how by regular mindfulness practice the brain is changed to think more positively,   but the truth is most of us are not committed practitioners.  We enjoy it whilst on a programme and when done with others.   We recognise its value at times of stress, and then we forget.  It takes up too much time, it becomes another thing to do, or our practice is so intermittent that we feel little value.  Who am I talking about when I write this – me.  I have done the 8 week programme, I have downloaded guided meditations, I have numerous mindfulness books sitting on the shelf, and yet I don’t continue to do the work.  It’s not because I don’t need to, it’s because I am a natural resister of regular disciplines.

 

I kept my sloth quiet when amongst those committed to mindfulness, until I found an ally in the work of Emma Young.  Her book ‘Sane’: written by a science and health journalist who shows a resistance to doing many of the things which she is told she should do in the name of well being struck a chord in me.  In setting out to establish what really works and is supported by science, she filters out many of the contradictory messages we are given, and identifies the essentials for improving mental strength.  Inevitably, she examines mindfulness, and concludes after talking with a range of researchers,  that it is the disruption to mental thought processes which is key.  Some may get it from mindfulness, others from running, playing a musical instrument, or making a cake.  It is the value of the activity in keeping us in the moment, undistracted from any other thought or concern that gives the activity its recuperative power.

 

Now,  I have discovered my form of disruption in the work of Heartmath®.   Heartmath® is at its simplest a breathing technique to reduce stress and build resilience.  However, it is based on the growing neuroscience evidence of the intelligence of the heart.  The heart is not just a pump, it is an organ with neural circuits that it is continually in communication with the brain, informing it of our level of stress or relaxation.  All those sayings which refer to the heart:  heart broken, heart sore, heart weary , bleeding heart, heavy heart  or heart to heart, are not accidental, they recognise that the heart is an active organ of emotion and communication. It is directly linked with our limbic system.

heartmath

By learning how to breath in a heart focussed way, we can control the variability of our heart rhythm and bring it into a smooth coherent pattern which balances out our need for energy with our need for relaxation.  In doing so we  enhance our performance and ability to handle the demands of the day. What is powerful for those who like to see science in action is that with Heartmath® you can observe your own heart pattern through a bio-feedback application linked to smartphone technology.   You can see how when you change your breathing you change the neurotransmitters which are driving  emotional responses to events.  And, of course, whilst engaging in managing  breathing more effectively, you are not focused on the thoughts that were causing us negative emotions.  It works for me, because I know that even 3 minutes of focused heart based breathing will support me in dealing with the demands of the day, and when the demands increase, a top up can be done quickly and inconspicuously.

 

Once I discovered its value for a failed mindfulness practitioner, I decided to use it with  clients as another means for supporting their resilience.  Clients like it, because even in the most demanding of situations they notice that by changing their breathing, they change their response (and no one even knows they are doing it).  So, while mindfulness has undoubted benefits, if you cannot quieten your mind one way, simply find your way.

 

 

What is Grit?

li-syria-refugees-rtr3a7ge

Images of exhausted refugees determined to succeed  in their quest to reach Europe in the hope of safety, have shown us people with admirable grit.  They have refused to give in or be deflected by danger, cold or hunger.  They meet difficulty  with a determination that challenges us to ask ourselves, “could I do the same  in the same circumstances?”

So what is grit, and what enables people to access it?  Grit is not the same as resilience, but it is an important part of it.  Resilience is an outcome,  it is the process of  recovering from setback.   Grit is what keeps people going when the going gets tough.  It is grit which keeps individuals determined to achieve a goal, and  we  need resilience when the reality of the goal makes high demands of us.  The refugee who attains their goal of a new life, then has to live the reality of a life apart from their family, of finding work, of learning a new language and living with new cultural norms.  They  need to access resilience in the same way as an ambitious person who has given up everything in order to achieve a career goal then has to live with the pressures of it, and the risk of failure. It is grit which makes a professional tennis player refuse to concede a match and hang on in, in the belief that their opponent will eventually crumble, rather than accepting the figures on the score board.  It is resilience that same person needs when they fail to win and have to get out of bed the next day and start training all over again.

 

So what is it that gives people ‘grit’?  According to Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, it is holding long term goals: goals that take months or even years to achieve.  Grit comes from having a vision of the future which goes beyond the immediacy of the moment. Wanting to escape physical danger provides a short term goal, but wanting to provide a life for one’s children so they can thrive, gives an additional impetus for sticking with discomfort.

 

Most of us will never face the life challenges of refugees, but we all still need grit. In studying groups as diverse as West Point Academy student cadets, contestants in a national spelling bee competiton and sales people,Angela Duckworth has concluded that grit is a  better predictor of success than IQ or EQ. To succeed we need grit.

 

So if you want to develop your ‘grittiness’ what can you do:

  1. You need to really want something and know why it is important to you.
  2. You must want to achieve the goal for yourself, not in order to please parents, partners or win the approval of our boss.  When we do things for others  when the going gets tough we can blame them for burdening us with their expectations.
  3. You need multiple goals that you keep in focus during the ups and downs, and which take you beyond immediate rewards.  A principle of having 3 goals helps move from the short term to the longer term.  A goal of going to the gym regularly is more likely to be stuck with if it is allied to a goal of being able to run a half marathon, which is in turn supported by a goal of having the energy to be a good parent.
  4. You need to develop your willpower muscle.  Willpower is built with practice. Everyone loses willpower at times, – but with practice it becomes easier to reconnect with willpower rather than seeing one setback as a reason for giving in.
  5. Stop thinking and ‘do’.  The energy we put into finding excuses for not doing things is enormous. Closing down the brain and just doing, denies us the possibility of a ‘let out’ clause. In the doing and the discovery that we can do something despite it being difficult or painful, we increase our grittiness.
  6. Confidence and grit are linked.  When we stick at something which stretches us, and in the process discover we can do something we never believed possible, our confidence grows.  When we allow ourselves off the hook in order to gain an immediate relief, we unconsciously erode our confidence in our own potential.

 

 

 

 

If you can’t find a supporter find an imaginery one

 

 

Doreen Pemberton receiving her nursing certificate

Doreen Pemberton receiving her nursing certificate

Today is a special day.  Through the post arrived copies of my new book Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches (McGraw Hill).  The title makes  clear what it is about and who it is written for.  I obviously hope it will help coaches do good work with their clients, but my excitement is about more than seeing the front cover and hoping it will do well  in Amazon’s rankings.  It is the excitement of realising that I have written  something that I could not have imagined doing 5 years ago.

The genesis of this book came from working with a particular client who I felt I failed.  I did not recognise that his resilience had left him, because I was used to seeing a man who was confident, successful and achieving.  When he seemed changed, I assumed I was meeting him on a ‘bad day’ and worked with him on the symptoms of that day, rather than realising what was really going on.  When he eventually became ill, I was shocked at what I had not seen, and it jolted me into action.  I began reading on resilience, I went on workshops and eventually I signed up to do doctoral research on resilience from the perspective of coaching.  I completed the doctorate and the outcome of that process is the book which McGraw Hill/OU Press have now published.

 

The book is a symbol of my  learning, but it is also a  marker of my own resilience.  I started a doctorate many years ago and abandoned it, although the conditions to complete it could not have been easier.  I was working in a business school.  I had easy access to organisations.  My fees were paid.  I could legitimately claim time to study.  Yet, I abandoned the work because it failed to make my heart sing.  I could see no purpose in doing the work, other than getting a qualification.  This time around, I achieved a doctorate despite working full time, paying my own way, having to negotiate access and giving up weekends and holidays.  What got me up at 5am in the morning to write before going to work, was not the lure of a qualification, but the desire to learn and for that learning to strengthen my own work .

And, there was another reason: I drew on the role modelling of my mother.  She had died shortly before I began the doctorate.  She was a feisty woman who had left school at 13, and who began studying in her 40’s, so that she could win a place to train to be a nurse.  The memory of her getting up  on a dark winters’ morning to ride her moped to a hospital many miles away; working nights,  and somehow managing to care for 3 children as a single parent, without ever complaining, stayed with me.  Her example sustained me as I wrote. At times I could even hear her voice telling me to just keep going.

Resilience research repeatedly reports 2 key themes in those who get through tough times:

  • The power of having a purpose
  • The importance of having support

My own experience supports those themes, but what I have also learnt is that  support can be virtual.  As much as it is enormously valuable to have friends and family who are physically there for us, it is also true that we can create our own virtual support system.  Calling on people who are no longer present in our lives, but who model qualities which can help us achieve our goals, can  be as powerful as having them physically present.  It is a tactic reported by people who have been taken captive.  As they live day to day in the harshest of conditions, they imagine those who love them talking to them with encouragement, and they use their voices to  keep them going.  Asking ourselves  “What would . . .   say to me if they were here right now?” can be a powerful motivator in tough times.

 

So, as I look at the book, I am celebrating not just the journey that took me from a feeling inadequate in my understanding of resilience, to being able to write a book about it, I am also celebrating the parental voice that kept me going.

If you are facing a challenge which is testing your resilience right now, then ask yourself:

  • Do I have a purpose in getting me through this?
  • Who can I draw on for support, even if  they are not physically here for me?

You can find out about the book by watching the video at www.carolepemberton.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Go On Take A Risk

old man on a bike

A 60 year old man came up at the end of a  presentation.  I had been talking about one of the markers of resilient leaders being their  ability to go beyond comfort.  Expecting a conversation about his  leadership, I was surprised when he began by confessing, “I have never learnt to ride a bike”. His colleague over hearing then added, “How do I learn a new sport as a middle aged man, when I know I won’t be any good”.  The answer to both their comments was the same: find a purpose and you will find the courage.  There is an apochryphal story that Albert Einstein learned to ride a bike when he was 80.  The truth of the story is less important than its message.  Learning to ride a bike at 80 cannot have been easy, but if he did so, he did it because he found a reason why riding a bike was now important to him.  It may have been linked to reduced mobility, or it may have been directed by the desire to master a new skill.  Whatever the reason, he had a purpose, and that purpose sustained him through the embarrassment of the failed attempts that were necessary before his body had the physical memory of how to balance on 2 wheels.

 

What was holding back the rookie tennis player was the belief  that he looked a fool on the tennis court, even though he was a successful businessman.  He was trapped by a sense that he should be good, and therefore he was judging himself harshly for his constant double faults and inability to hit the ball where he wanted to.  His fear of being bad was the very thing that was ensuring he could not be good.  He needed to  replace fear with  purpose.  What else could tennis give him beyond winning?  Once he finds  that purpose: whether it is doing something with his children, enjoying being outdoors, or making new friends, it will be easier to quieten the internal critic and pay curious attention to what he is doing with his racquet.  It is probable that the less he worries about his technique, the better his technique will become.

 

It is undoubtably harder to expose oneself to failure as one grows older.  No toddler ever judges their attempts to walk as so abysmal that they will give up walking.  They are so directed by the desire to have their first experience of independence that they simply pick themselves up and start again. They are not afraid of failure because they accept it as secondary to achieving a desired end.  As adults we need to accept the value in continuing to expose ourselves to new learning and risk, and define the reason for doing so, more broadly than being the best.

What We Can Learn From Stephen Sutton

 

Stephen-Sutton_2890456b

The response to the death of Stephen Sutton has been profound.  The inspirational 19 year old, who with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, decided to use every day he had left to him to live to his mantra of “it’s not how long you live, it’s the experiences you have”  has been extraordinary.  We do not expect 19 year olds to die of cancer.  We do not expect 19 year olds to use their experience as a focus for raising millions of pounds.  We do not expect 19 year olds to face death head on.  We do not expect those things, not because he was 19, but because it is not how most people deal with impending death.

 

What Stephen did was to decide, if he could not have the life expectancy he expected, how could he create a purpose for his life?  He did it with such energy, positivity and humour that he became an irresistible  force: as signalled in the celebrities and politicians lining up to be associated with him.  More crucially, in the creation of the purpose, he made the process of his dying easier.

 

We know from all the research on resilience that it is the creation of purpose that gets people through the tough times. It is being able to decide that as difficult as a situation is, I can choose to create meaning from it.  It is seen in accounts of prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors.  It is seen in the stories of families who create campaigns  and charities, following the death of a family member.  It is seen in the accounts of children who decide that they will fight the odds and escape from challenging family backgrounds.  There is nothing more valuable than purpose.  It gives us a compass point for our actions.  It makes us persist when it would be easier to give up.  It makes people commit to doing work that is not financially rewarding but feeds their sense of purpose.

 

We react to Stephen Sutton’s story, because in his creation of purpose, he reminds us that if we have the luxury of more time for our living, we owe it to ourselves to live with purpose.

 

Living the Bell Curve: The Importance of Not Being Attached to Success or Failure

eat pray love

Recently I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert on TED talks.  Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love a book which gave her phenomenal success and which spawned a film of the same name. In the talk she spoke about the impact of the book on her life.  She had known she had wanted to write from childhood and had lived the life of a writer for many years i.e. little income and many rejections.  With each rejection she recovered by in her words ‘going home’.  Going home meant getting back to her desk and starting to write all over again.  In order to recover from rejection she went back to the thing which she loved best, and where she could be freed from her ego.  Once writing the rejection and the hurt that came with it disappeared because she was absorbed in her life’s passion.

 

Conversely, when she experienced success she saw the need for the same process.  Where rejection had pushed her to one end of the bell curve, success pushed her to the other.  Each were equally disabling.  As she saw herself being feted for one book which had caught the popular imagination, she felt as disoriented as when she only received brickbats. She needed to find herself back in the average zonal range of the bell curve, and in order to do that she needed to  “go home” ie to get back to writing and away from things which fed her ego.  By doing that she was freed up to deal with failure again.  When her next book ‘bombed’ in her words, she was able to deal with it, because her ego was not invested in being at the high end of the curve.  Her message to her audience is that regardless of success or failure, we need to know what ‘going home’ means to us, so that we ensure we can find our way there, whether things are going well or badly.  Going home may mean your family, your work, your beliefs, your partner, but whatever it is, it is important to recognise that living at the extremes is so much easier if you know where you need to head back to.

Why We Need to Get Back On the Horse When We Fall

 

falling off horse

 

As a 9 year old I walked to school past a house where a large boxer dog stood outside on guard. It barked loudly as I walked towards it, and when I crossed the road to escape  it would follow me. I came to be petrified of the dog, and eventually planned routes were I was guaranteed not to see him.   Was the dog dangerous? – Unlikely, but that experience conditioned into my brain the idea that dogs are to be avoided. A belief that stays with me as an adult.  But what if, when the dog barked the owner had come out of the house had held it by the collar and had invited me to come and say hello to him.  If they had told me how to stroke the dog and had explained that his bark was worse than his bite.  It is possible that over time I would have seen encountering the dog as one of the pleasures of walking to school.  More centrally, it would have stopped the development of a conditioned response in my brain. I would have had an unpleasant memory overlain with a new one that kept my brain open to the idea of dogs being fun.  I would have developed a flexibility in my responses.

 

It is that recognition that our brain quickly becomes conditioned if we allow an unpleasant memory to be reinforced  is behind the adage of the importance of getting back on the horse after a fall.

 

Neuroscience has now shown that recent memories are fragile. They are not embedded in our brains so they can be overridden by new ones.  The child who falls off the horse and remounts will put the fall in the context of a whole experience of the feelings and sensations of being out on a horse.  They will contextualize the fall as part of the event, but not the whole event.  Meanwhile the child who falls and does not remount will remember only the pain and may decide that horses are dangerous.

 

So, when we face fear and pain our brains are better served by us being willing to face the experiences, because by doing so we learn how to remain flexible in our responses, and in avoidance we condition our brain into thinking we cannot cope with difficulty.