Enjoying work

A sad truth about organizational life

The real question today is why so many large organizations are full of unhappy people, at all levels, who don’t up sticks and go somewhere else. Is this unhappiness because people have to work at jobs they are afraid of losing, even though they hate what they do? Are they forced to stay put working for organizations they fear and distrust?

I’ve been a reader of this blog almost since it started, as well as similar ones which cover the world of work, offer strategies for success and tips for working productively, and describe the mind-numbing idiocies you find in many organizations today. But I have recently started to wonder if one or two important points aren’t being missed.

For a start, most of these blogs are written, and largely read, by skilled and educated people who work in software or computer systems. The advice they give—about how to cope with a bad boss or get more fun from your job—is fair enough for people like them. But most people aren’t like them. “Get a job you love doing” is good advice, but obviously not everyone can follow it.

So why are so many large organizations full of unhappy people at all levels?

For a start, many of them really don’t have the skills or the freedom to go and work somewhere else. Many people do have to work at jobs they hate, but which they are afraid of losing, for organizations they fear and distrust.

But there’s another point being missed as well, I think. Happiness depends not only on the job you do. It also depends, to a large extent, on the kind of organization you work for; what it does, what its values are, and how it functions internally.

Have you got a real job?

The worth of your job, and so your own perception of it; often has less to do with its inherent interest, or whether it’s well-paid and prestigious, than whether it has a useful end-product; whether, in other words, it’s a real job.

You can say that a hospital cleaner has a real job, and so does a farm worker, or somebody selling umbrellas in the street when it’s raining. But an international tax consultant jetting around the world helping companies escape paying tax doesn’t have a real job, even if he or she travels first class and stays in expensive hotels. And a lawyer advising companies on how to get round anti-pollution legislation doesn’t have a real job either, even if she has a lovely house and a wonderful loving family.

Lower down the food-chain, of course, people do even less useful jobs without the compensations even of first-class airline travel. I was shocked, but not really surprised, to read in a review of Michael Moore’s new film that American health insurance companies employ people to covertly investigate claimants to see whether their claims can be turned down on some pretext or other.

How do you live with yourself as a human being in such a job?

“How was your day, darling?”

“Oh, I saved the shareholders a lot of money by pushing a few more families into bankruptcy, what about you?”

You may not personally do these things—any more than you may deceitfully sell mortgages to clients who can’t afford them—but it’s naive to imagine that you can work happily for a company that acts in that way, even if you are a caterer or a personal assistant.

Real jobs can still be lucrative ones

Notice that a worthwhile job doesn’t have to be an altruistic one; it’s perfectly possible to make money, and even become rich, whilst still contributing something to society.

Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, for example, are widely admired, not because they are rich but because they provide goods and services of high quality that people want to buy. So it’s not surprising that when you meet people who work for either of these companies, they tend to be happy in their work, even if what they do is not especially high-profile. And to be fair, I have known happy and fulfilled lawyers and financial advisers, who like to think of themselves as always acting in the best interests of their clients.

We live in a weirdly schizoid society, where we are encouraged to admire people who are rich, irrespective of how they got that way, and to see ruthlessness as praiseworthy and greed (really this time, and not in a film) as good. Yet at the same time—and in spite of what we read in the Economist or the Wall Street Journal—most of us have a good instinctive understanding of whether what we are doing is practically useful, and this affects what we think of our job and the organization we work for, and so how happy we are.

The link with happiness at work

So when we have a job, no matter how well-paid, where we think we aren’t doing something useful, we react by being unhappy. But because we have been taught to identify happiness with money, we assume that we are unhappy because we don’t have enough money, rather than because we have a job of no practical value.

Intelligent and educated people naturally have higher expectations; thus the paradox that the loudest demands for more money come from those who already have too much, who have sacrificed and burnt everything else in their lives to become rich, and now find they are still unhappy. They retaliate, of course, by destroying the happiness of their colleagues and their staff

When I was a child, the male working population (few women worked) overwhelmingly did things with a tangible output. They built cars, dug coal, made steel, worked on farms. In those days, in the working class area of London where I was born, your daddy was a train driver, worked in a factory, dug holes for the Gas Board or worked as a stevedore in the docks.

These days, well, your daddy might have a six-month contract at an outsourced financial services call-centre, where he has to cold call people persuading them to buy special insurance they don’t really need, and he’ll be sacked if he doesn’t meet his target. No wonder people are unhappy.

In the end, all of this comes down to the question asked of sages for thousands of years: “how can I be happy?” The best and simplest reply is the one that sages have always given: “do something useful with your life.”

An Englishman now resident in Europe, John Fletcher has had a long career in the public sector in several countries. He has spent a good deal of time in working environments outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and has written and lectured on organizational issues.

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Another basic principle of Slow Leadership

Fragmented, distracted attention is the curse of today’s workplaces. People are continually interrupted by phone calls, emails, instant messaging, meetings, and all manner of people demanding instant attention. The result is frustration and exhaustion, while nothing is ever properly completed. Since how you direct your attention controls what you think and what you do, it’s important always to know where you’re placing your attention.

Your attention is precious. You have only a finite amount of it, so how you use it is important. Don’t be taken in by all the nonsense about multitasking. Multitasking never adds to your attention. It’s just a fashionable term to hide an ugly reality: that people who multitask fragment their attention between many, many actions, thus passing each one off with less than it deserves.

The correct use of attention is critical both to avoiding stress, when you can, and limiting its effects when you cannot. A distracted mind is stressful in itself. So is jumping from task to task, never having the time to do more than apply a quick fix before moving to the next crisis.

Many people act is if their attention is not their own—as if others can demand it at any time, then take it where they want it to go.

Not so. This happens only because you allow it to—because you surrender control of your attention to others. Just because the boss demands that you jump, you don’t have to do no more than ask “how high?” If that’s your attitude, it’s because you have chosen it to be—obedience in return for . . . what? Money? Status? Imagined security? Not being hurt?

Understanding that your attention is always yours, to apply where you choose to apply it, is the first stage in realizing that your experience is as much determined by your own choices as by the action of others or blind chance. It’s a vital step to turning yourself from a passive victim into a human being, fully accountable for his or her own choices and their outcomes.

Your attention is finite

You have only 100 percent. So if you split it between two actions, whatever you earmark to each one must add up to 100 percent. Split it evenly and each gets no more than 50 percent. Favor one task over the other and one gets maybe 60 or 70 percent and the other 30 to 40 percent. People who way they juggle four or five tasks at once, can’t give any of them more than about 20 percent of attention. Ask yourself this question. What tasks can you do well on 10 to 20 percent attention—or less?

We’re already seeing how the fashion for instant availability by cellphone and texting is causing road accidents. Every time some driver cuts me up or makes a dangerous maneuver, I look to see if he or she has a cellphone jammed against an ear. Sure enough, most times that’s the case. When states and cities have to pass laws to force drivers to put the cellphone down while driving, you know something is badly out of line. Only morons believe that they can give their attention to driving and handle a cellphone at the same time.

How to get it right

To practice Right Attention, the Slow Leadership way, the first step is to stop sleeping with the enemy. Don’t collude with any practice that fragments or distracts your attention, or prevents you using it as you decide it needs to be used at the time.

  • Control distractions. Make it clear you are not always available, save in a true emergency. Shut off the cellphone. Check emails only at set intervals. The world won’t end.
  • Avoid multitasking like the plague it is. Take tasks in sequence and try to complete each one (or reach a sensible point to pause) before moving to the next. Multitasking is a badge of stupidity, not a mark of toughness.
  • Pay attention to your attention. Learn to direct it where you want. Don’t let it be hijacked by other people.
  • Set priorities and stick to them. Other people will always want attention instantly, but if you’re patient in making it clear this isn’t the norm, they’ll get the message. Very few things truly cannot wait.
  • Schedule time for thinking and reflection. You need it. It’s necessary to keep your mind working and your creativity available. Don’t allow yourself to put it at the bottom of your agenda. You’ll never reach it.

Why it matters

The first duty of a leader is to set priorities and manage resources. Your attention is the scarcest resource you have. Overwork and fatigue reduce the attention you have available. Interruptions and distractions fragment it into parcels too small to be useful. Allowing anyone to contact you at any time scatters what’s left until it becomes lost and hopelessly confused.

Yes, there are pressures. Yes, other people do expect instant answers. Yes, people do keep piling more and more tasks on you. Yes, people who rush about yelling how busy they are often do seem to be the organization’s darlings. And no, you can’t blame any of these for your problem. Joining in the general foolishness is no way to stop it—or protect yourself from its effects.

Whose attention is it? If you don’t do what’s right, who will? Only if enough people are willing to resist what has become a mindless fashion, will things change.

It’s surely worth trying.

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Why we need to resurrect an unfashionable virtue

Tolerance is an unfashionable virtue today, especially in parts of American society. Oddly, it’s often associated with weakness, where the opposite in true. To tolerate those who reject, refuse, or actively attack, your deepest beliefs and values takes enormous strength and unshakable faith in what you believe. Show me someone who persecutes those who disagree with their position and I will show you a person whose faith in their beliefs is already shaky.

Few people write about the dark side of our passions: the way they can become so intense they slip from a positive force in our lives into destroying our peace of mind. Fortunately, few of us will ever experience true obsession. Yet there is a little of the dark side of values in everyone. It’s as well to be aware of it and what it can do.

Passion and fear are natural partners. When you feel something as intensely as you feel whatever you are truly passionate about, there is always a sense of uneasiness. What would happen if you lost what is most important to you? How would you cope if it were taken away? Might someone try that?

Behind every strong human desire there is fear. People who become passionate fitting in and being part of the right crowd fear rejection and loneliness. Workaholic achievement freaks fear failure. Loners fear being dependent on anyone who might hurt them, mostly because they’ve been hurt that way before. People like this cling to their viewpoint because any alternative seems likely to be painful and scary. They reject tolerance, not because it would hurt them, but because they fear it might.

The more you cling, the less tolerant you become

The more strongly you cling to what matters most to you, the more fiercely you will respond to any threat, real or imagined, against it. People find it hard to cope calmly with such a slight danger as disagreement with the values they hold. How can someone pose a threat to your beliefs simply by holding different ones? Yet friendships are ended, families disrupted, work teams destroyed, careers derailed, and marriages wrecked by nothing more tangible than a disagreement about what is valued or believed by one of the parties. It makes no sense.

Of course, it does once you understand the fear. By refusing to accept your beliefs and values as mine too, I undermine, just a little, your confidence in what you believe. If I go further and openly oppose or denigrate your point of view, the threat is greater and the emotional response will increase in proportion. This is the paradox. The more strongly people believe in something, the less easy it is for them to cope with others who don’t. That’s why clubs become exclusive. That’s why we’ve had centuries of religious and political persecution.

How workplace tyrants develop

Our places of work are still riddled with “command-and-control” ways of thinking: beliefs about the “right” of those in positions of authority to demand that others do what they say. If it stayed at that, it would be bad enough. But it’s a small step from requiring subordinates to follow orders to demanding that they “hold the right attitudes” (i.e. the boss’s) and “show they’re sound” before they can obtain promotion.

Workplaces are social situations and bosses are sadly human. We all like to work with people with whom we feel at ease. But what a workplace needs most is people who can do the job well, not those who fit some boss’s idiosyncratic template for the kind of person they believe is “sound” or “made of the right stuff.”

Tyranny and discrimination don’t come from managers who are at ease and secure in their own beliefs and views. They can ignore anything that isn’t anti-social, illegal, or prejudicial to a good business environment, and focus purely on a person’s skills and capacity to turn in excellent work. It’s the self-righteous, the insecure, and the fearful who cannot.

Greater tolerance matters

Every day, we must all must face people whose view of the world does not match ours. You may have to work with them, serve them as customers, or answer to them as your boss. If you cannot learn to tolerate different—even uncomfortable—beliefs and viewpoints cheerfully, you’ll cause yourself and others continual pain. The dark side of your passions is always there, waiting to disrupt your life.

Strong values are usually seen as something to be applauded. Maybe. They also increase the danger of bigotry, self-righteousness, discrimination, persecution, and obsession. I’ve studied peoples’ values and beliefs for decades. In that time, I’ve met many cases of good, principled people unaware of how they allow the dark side of their passions and fears to turn them into narrow-minded, cruel tormentors of anyone who disagrees sufficiently with them.

St. Paul wrote that without charity we are nothing. He’s not an authority I’m much given to quoting, but in this case I believe he was pointing to something essential. One of the meanings of charity in Webster’s dictionary is “leniency in judging others, forbearance.” In other words, tolerance. If your values are strong but you do not practice charity and tolerance, the steep slope into bigotry, discrimination, and persecution is already under your feet.

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Adding all the pluses and minuses honestly might produce a different picture

The almost universal assumption that “the bottom line” in business equals the net amount of profit is not correct. That’s merely the accounting version—and generally accepted standards of accounting omit a great many elements of a business that carry significant weight in real terms. If you want to understand the true corporate “bottom line,” you must take account of all those intangible and non-financial items that affect an organization’s growth and progress. It’s the same in your own life: the bottom line needs to be calculated using all the data, not just the parts that are easily turned into numbers. The only version of the “bottom line” that really counts is the one that measures whether you are acting in a way that enhances life . . . or diminishes it.

For decades, businesses have used accounting conventions to provide a picture of their status and progress. If they are being honest, everyone knows that these are inadequate. They omit huge areas of importance, such as the power of a brand, the impact of customer attitudes to the business, and the impact of fashion and the changing nature of society.

There have been some attempts to put a numerical value on a brand, and “goodwill” is used as a financial proxy for the intangibles of customer loyalty and appreciation, but such intangible items play a minor role in reaching a calculation of “the bottom line.” And that is without all the growth in “off balance sheet” items that has been so characteristic of certain corporations—especially those that have later fallen foul of the law.

Corporate intangibles

Organizational types are always attracted to things they can measure numerically. It gives them a feeling of being “scientific.” It makes it easy to produce comparisons and benchmarks. It looks objective.

But what is easy is not always correct, and reaching a “bottom line” figure on purely numerical and financial data tends to distort reality.

What is the true position of an organization that is currently making substantial profits, but alienating its customers by the methods it has chosen to do so? What about one that is maximizing short-term gains by mortgaging—or compromising—long-term growth necessities? As the world finally wakes up to the size of the problem of the human impact on the environment, what is the “bottom line” for an organization that relies on old, polluting technologies to make its profits?

The rash of Chinese imports to the USA that break US standards of product safety shouldn’t surprise anyone. All these Chinese companies are doing is copying their Western models by finding ways to maximize short-term profits at the expense of quality and safety standards. The main difference is that they aren’t nearly as practiced at doing it, so they are caught out more easily. Western companies have been sacrificing ethical and environmental standards for over a hundred years in their belief that immedaite financial profitability is the only “bottom line” that matters.

Personal calculations

For individuals too, those “bottom line” calculations are far trickier than they look.

The writers of the Christian Bible were aware of this thousands of years ago. “What shall it profit a man,” they asked, “if he gain the whole world yet lose his own soul?”

That question is just as relevant today as then. Is it a fair calculation of your personal “bottom line” to look only at getting and spending? Is it enough to make as much personal profit as possible, if the cost includes wrecking relationships, threatening your own health, and reaching the end of your life rich, alone, and despised? What if your personal profit comes mostly by exploiting others or pillaging the environment? Is that acceptable, merely because it makes sense in financial terms? What value do you put on a clear conscience and a civilized world?

A fresh calculation

The assumption that profit and financial success are the only “bottom line” calculations that matter, even to corporations, seems to me to be hopelessly superficial and naive. The rise of Hamburger Management, with its mindless mantra of “faster and cheaper,” has merely made matters worse.

The most effective corporations have never subscribed to a view that short-term profitability is all that matters. Costco, for example, provides employee wages and benefits well in excess of what proponents of financial-bottom-line-only thinking believe is correct; and still makes substantial profits. Before it lost its way and gave in to the supposed financial gurus (and not incidentally nearly went bust by doing so), Marks & Spencer in Britain was noted for putting product quality and high ethical standards at the top of its list of priorities. So long as it did so, it appeared impregnable to competition. When it dropped such “antiquated” notions in favor of fashion and profit, it soon lost its premier place.

What about your “bottom line?” How are you calculating it?

Is your personal “bottom line” calculation based on nothing but the size of your bank balance, the number of expensive toys you own, or your prospects of promotion? Where do peace of mind, sound relationships, trust, ethical standards, and good health rate? You cannot put a monetary value on them, but many people have found after a while that they would give all the money they have to bring back these intangibles of a civilized life . . . if only they could.

The true “bottom line” is the value your life has. Does your presence on this earth enhance it or harm it? Are others glad that you are alive, or do they blame you for diminishing their lives?

Until you make that calculation—and make it honestly—you are nowhere near the real “bottom line” of existence.

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One sure-fire sign of macho management is lack of courtesy. A pressure cooker environment doesn’t make space for pleasantries. Microwave management doesn’t leave time for politeness. A slow management environment sees the value in civility and fosters it graciously.

Courtesy is a skill that must be practiced and likely relearned from time-to-time. It is a fundamental no business can afford to lose. It is a basic that serves as gold-plating to any business or business professional.

“Good morning, ma’am.”

“Courteous” is defined in part by Webster as “marked by respect for and consideration of others.” The simple dignity of a polite greeting sends a message: “I value you.” A small gesture may change the entire tone of the conversation to come.

Courtesy adds precious seconds to the transaction, but gives hours of goodwill to the relationship. A gracious formality or two lubricates the discussion. Courtesy resists the microwaving of the relationship.

Courtesy is a polish that reaches across class and wealth. The refinement of civility is accessible to anyone, regardless of rank or education. Like most basic skills, its cost of use is relatively low. Like most fundamentals, its value is relatively high.

“Good morning, sir.”

Time is one of the three key ingredients of courtesy. Civility adds time and effort to the interaction. Politeness means waiting while someone organizes their thoughts. Civility prevents you from pouncing on someone the moment they are not occupied.

Being polite adds time to your transactions. One viewpoint is that you will have lost multiple minutes in etiquette and ritual. Another viewpoint is that you have invested those clock ticks in the joy and well-being of your fellow human beings. Of course, you may be saving time after all. A few moments pause may allow them to organize a more complete response to your question. A less harried co-worker might be prepared to give you what you want.

“How have you been?”

Sincerity is is the second ingredient in courtesy. Nothing has the power to lift a spirit like a true expression of caring. In a cold, microwave world, a moment of real touch and interaction warms the heart.

The mechanics of courtesy are easy. A parrot can be taught to say “thank you.” A sincere moment of gratitude catches and holds the attention of others.

Of course, our care and concern, especially in a professional business environment, will be limited. Still, you can have a moment of human contact. You and the client will not be the same afterwards.

“Fine, thank you”

Last, but not least, generosity is the final ingredient of courtesy. Courtesy is the giving of a gift. Time or concern are precious commodities in the world. Only the truly rich give them away with such abandon.

Assuming the best from an ambiguous phrase is a given kindness. Allowing someone to regain their intellectual footing or dignity is an act of rich kindness. Courtesy heaps value and worth on both sides of the transaction.

Customers and co-workers like to be valued. They will flock to a place where worth is being given away. Are you the place where others can receive such free gifts?

“I’m glad to hear it.”

Courtesy is a business value. A civilized transaction is more easily perceived as honest. Politeness adds to the quality of the transaction for the customer.

Think of your favorite coffee spot. What makes it your favorite? Most likely, the courtesy of the barista adds dramatically to your coffee drinking experience. A charming greeting and warm gestures can easily change the taste of the coffee from “marginal” to “delicious.”

Think about the interactions you have during the day. How many could be improved—significantly if not dramatically—by courtesy and decorum? Are there some marginal relationships you would like to change for the better in this way?

Desertcat has more than twenty years of experience in Supply Chain Management, with an emphasis on strategic partnering between management and subcontractors, with an extensive knowledge and participation in negotiations, pre-planning and execution. You can find his writing on other topics at http://www.cadremenpress.com.

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The more you focus on what you don’t want, the more of it you’ll keep finding to get rid of.

What you give most attention to nearly always assumes a larger role in your life. This isn’t some nutty “law of attraction” nonsense; it’s a simple observation of the way that the human mind works. People who become obsessed with the amount of dog-poop thoughtless owners leave behind on the street see it everywhere. It drives them mad. The rest of us simply step in it, curse, and forget about it. Still, you can sometimes learn even from what you step in.

I’ve had it up to here with the “Law of Attraction”—about as goofy an idea as ever spawned a thousand web sites and helped lead gullible people astray.

Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth hiding within the hype. The more you focus on something, the more you’ll keep thinking about it and the bigger the part it’s therefore probably going to play in your life—at least in the short term.

It’s commonsense. The toughest element in breaking yourself of a habit is usually how very aware you become of what it is that you’re trying to give up.

If you’re always thinking about food (a common problem with people on diets), you’ll constantly notice tempting goodies and be instantly aware how much you want to eat them. Until you decided not to watch TV so much, you were barely aware of the screen in your living room. Now it’s a constant presence tempting you to switch on.

Getting more of what you don’t want

In the workplace, as elsewhere in life, most people find it much easier to define what they don’t want than what they do.

They don’t want a boring job. They don’t want a nit-picking or domineering boss. They don’t want to work with people that they don’t like. They don’t ever want to work with Adam from Accounts again.

Managers are especially prone to this outlook. They sometimes spend so much of their time and attention trying to root out what they don’t want that very little time or energy is left for working on what they do.

Of course, conventional management teaching and writing encourages this. It urges people to look for gaps in people’s skills and concentrate on filling them. To look for all the ways their operations are falling short; to become paranoid about variances from the plan and any mismatch between expectations for profits (in reality, these are mostly little more than over-enthusiastic dreams) and the reality. Only last week, Dell admitted that some executives had falsified accounts to match profit expectations; another case of leaders focusing on what they hadn’t achieved, not what they had, with embarrassing consequences.

Nature abhors a vacuum

If you focus mostly on negatives, you’ll find more and more of them. If you only know what you don’t want, not what you do, you’ll create spaces with nothing to go in them.

Sometimes you do have to clear what you don’t want out of the way to make room for something better. But if all you do is get rid of what’s unwanted, with little or no clear idea of what should go in its place, you’ll produce an empty space: a vacuum waiting to be filled.

The vacuum that you produce will be filled—often rapidly—by something you may want even less than whatever it was you had before.

People who give up smoking often gain weight. The gap left by stopping the rituals of getting and lighting a cigarette are filled by getting something to eat instead. Supervisors told to give up their habit of taking charge of everything themselves (managing by issuing orders) find they have unexpected free time, which many fill by micro-managing instead (disguising it as coaching) or holding pointless meetings.

It’s quite likely that not knowing clearly what you do want, then focusing on eliminating things you don’t, will leave you worse off than if you had left well alone. Look at the businesses who have focused entirely on eliminating costs by outsourcing operations overseas—then discovered a slew of quality problems. They knew what they didn’t want—high labor costs—but failed to define what mattered instead, so they got their wish . . . plus an unpleasant surprise.

Getting the sequence right

If you begin by being clear about what you want, you’ll find things tend to happen roughly in this sequence:

  • Getting what you want often replaces things you would otherwise have had to remove. There’s no gap. The new (and better) simply takes over from whatever was there before.
  • You’ll quickly become aware of exactly what needs to be removed and when. Since you know what must go in its place, once again there will be no gap to be filled by the unexpected.
  • Quite a number of things that you thought you would need to give time and energy to removing turn out to be trivial or irrelevant. They wither away on their own or can be ignored, with a great saving of your effort.

People who want a slower, more civilized kind of working life need to concentrate on what will produce that, not what doesn’t fit their vision. Instead of focusing on cutting time at the office (which will just make you uncomfortably aware of what you are leaving undone), think about the positive ways you are going to spend the time instead.

Spending the commute home in pleasant anticipation beats spending it worrying about what you left behind—only some of which will be still there to deal with tomorrow. A surprising amount will somehow have evaporated overnight, or been reduced to trivia you can safely and happily ignore, if you stop obsessing about it.

Slowing down isn’t just giving up on rushing. It’s moving to a different, more pleasant, and more effective lifestyle. Focus on that and even the urge to rush will dissipate.

In the end, the power of the habits that we most want to break lies in the amount of attention we lavish on them while doing so. Give that up—focus instead on what you will put in their place—and you will weaken them so much that they’ll stop bothering you.

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A birder’s view of choosing your path in life

Binoculars are essential to all birders. Some birding beginners give up because just the binoculars they’re using aren’t satisfactory. They don’t see the birds well enough to make it interesting. Seeing your vision for your life ahead clearly enough is equally essential to a successful and interesting career. Some people give up on their lives or careers because the vision that they’re using isn’t up to the job.

The more you consider binoculars and birding, the more links you see with how people use and choose their vision for what they want from life and work.

Focusing on small areas

Binoculars both improve and limit your view. They magnify a small area far away, so that you see it better, while they restrict your view to that area only. Your “field of view” is greatly narrowed compared with normal sight. That’s why people unfamiliar with using binoculars often find it hard even to find a bird that they know is in plain view. Their viewpoint is too narrow when they look through the binoculars. More experienced birders hold the bird in view with the naked eye while they slowly lift their binoculars into place.

Your vision for your life and career works in similar ways. You are going to look at events, people and ideas “through” that vision, focusing in closely on those parts that it picks out for you. Everything else will be out of focus or out of sight. Like binoculars, the stronger the power of magnification, the narrower the field of view. Beginner birders often buy binoculars that are too powerful and have such a narrow field of view it’s almost impossible to focus on a moving bird. Some people’s visions are also too strong for them, causing narrow-mindedness and bigotry.

Always choose the best that you can

That doesn’t mean the biggest, the most expensive, or the most powerful—and certainly not the most fashionable at the moment.

As I just pointed out, binoculars that are too powerful are virtually useless. They’re too heavy to carry for long and make seeing the birds harder, not easier. Nor are the most expensive brands the best for everyone. The best means the best for you and where you are today. The best vision for your life is what is going to work for you, not what anyone else would choose.

Quality does count in binoculars and life and career visions. Cheap binoculars for birding are a waste of money. They usually provide a poor image and make everything look dull and fuzzy. Advice to new birders is always the same: “Buy the best binoculars you can afford. Never stint. You’ll quickly regret it.” It’s the same with visions. Cheap, tawdry ones produce dull, frustrating lives and careers. Good visions are expensive, not in cash, but in the duties they place on you to stand up for what’s right and the way that they constantly challenge you to do better than feels comfortable. No one ever managed to live a satisfying, successful life on the cheap.

There’s another characteristic that visions and binoculars share. Binoculars must “feel right” to be of any use. Choosing binoculars is an intensely personal business, not something you can easily do via the Internet or mail order. You have to hold them in your hands for a little while and sense if they’ll be good companions on your birding trips.

There are three “big names” in birding optics: Leica, Zeiss, and Swarovski: the first two two German, the last Austrian. I used to use Leica binoculars, now I have Swarovski. I’ve never been comfortable with Zeiss. There’s no difference in optical quality, the price is almost the same, and Zeiss has a fine reputation. Many excellent birders won’t use any other brand. But I can’t bear them, just like I’ve never driven any vehicle made by Ford on either side of the Atlantic that I didn’t want to get out of immediately. It’s just me.

Is it time for you to upgrade?

People get comfortable with their current life vision and can’t see any value in those others that use and love. It’s personal and irrational, just like me with binoculars. People also use that same basic vision everywhere they go, just like I’ve taken my binoculars with me from Australia to South America, Europe and Africa. The trouble is that the vision they have is a poor one. It’s outdated, limited in quality, picked up on the cheap, or just plain inadequate.

I’ve known people whose personal vision for their life is the equivalent of using binoculars handed down from their great-great-grandparents. I’ve also found many people using viewpoints that, if they were binoculars, would be flimsy, battered pairs picked up in some garage sale or flea market. Dreadful shoddy, cheap things, not fit for anything except the garbage.

Take a moment and think about the vision that is currently guiding your life, your career, and the way that you’re looking at the world. How well does it work? What’s the quality of the “lenses” it offers you? Does it narrow your field of view too much? Is it old, damaged, dusty, or well past its prime? Is it time that you swapped it for a better one? Can you afford not to?

Remember the advice to new birders: “Never use poor binoculars. Always get the best you can afford—even if you have to stretch a little. Looking at the world through poor optics is a waste of time and limits you to a dim and distorted view.” That’s very sound advice for life visions as well.

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One small change may be all it takes

It’s easy to be defeated before you start: to look ahead at the size and scope of whatever you want to change in your life and despair. But even a single, small change can be the catalyst for a personal revolution.

I’m sure that many, many people want to reduce the stress that they suffer, and get a better balance in their lives between the demands of their job and employer and all the other things they want to do. Maybe they would like to change other parts of their life too: become a kinder person, worry less, enjoy the moment more.

Why don’t they do it?

It’s often the apparent size of the task that defeats them. They never even make a start. The potential problems, upsets, criticism, difficulties with the boss or their colleagues—all of these make them feel so daunted that they give in and continue with the status quo.

“Big picture” blues

This is one of the rare occasions when nearly everyone considers the “big picture,” and when doing so really does not help.

That broad overview of what you want to achieve, and the likely problems to be overcome, packs everything into a single picture that is guaranteed to put almost anyone off. You may see all the potential benefits, but you’re also considering every drawback and difficulty you can imagine at the same time.

For a start, a good many of those problems will never happen. Your overview will contain what’s likely, what’s just possible, and what’s downright silly—the product of fear instead of reason—all jumbled together. Even when some parts of what you fear do come about, they’ll do so in a random sequence with gaps in between. They’ll virtually never attack you all at once.

When I was at university, one of my teachers had the annoying habit of calling us together at the start of each new year and setting out in minute detail all the work that we were to do for him. I never failed to leave these sessions depressed, anxious, and terrified. I was absolutely certain I could never do all that work—and he was only one of the professors who gave us tasks to complete!

Not only did I manage to complete his schedule (and the schedules for the other professors), I also found, to my surprise, I had time over for rest, socializing, and plenty of other activities. He made me realize how much studying I would have to do, but I was quite unable to see it in the context of 365 days of living. He presented it all at once, so that was the picture that I responded to.

The amazing power of one

All you really need do to start out on a path that may change your life is take a single step, then another and another. Keep doing that and you’ll accomplish all you wanted—and more besides.

Make one small change, then follow it with another. Tackle one problem at a time. Don’t worry about what might happen. Wait until it does. If you have many tasks in front of you, just do them one at a time.

Look for the next thing that needs doing and do it. Repeat that again and again.

Here are some ideas to get you started on the path to living a slower, calmer, more balanced and enjoyable life:

  • Set aside one period during one working day (maybe one hour) when you make sure that you can’t be interrupted. Repeat as needed.
  • Each week, keep one day totally free from work-related activities.
  • Excuse yourself from going to one useless meeting.
  • Choose a single activity you really love and do it for one hour, without any concern for anything else.
  • Choose one random act of kindness and do it.
  • Pick a day and leave work early, regardless of what’s hanging over you.
  • Look down your list of to-dos and do one thing that you’ve been putting off.
  • Pick a person who needs it and tell them how much you appreciate what they do for you.
  • Give your nearest and dearest one single hour of your absolute, undivided attention.

That’s it. Do one thing and see what happens. If you feel good, do another. Don’t try to go any faster. Don’t rush ahead in a burst of enthusiasm and crash into a wall of problems and exhaustion.

One step at a time. When you think about it, there’s no other way to walk or run without falling on your face.

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Unrealistic dreams can get in the way of your success in life.

In today’s culture of “have it all,” the very notion of giving up on something can seem like heresy. But sticking with a vision that isn’t working won’t provide you with anything but pain. Sometimes the right path starts with giving up what you thought was your goal and starting again with a fresh one.

Giving up seems like the opposite of getting what you want out of life, but that can be misleading—even dangerous. It’s easy to become so attached to the wrong version of what you’re looking for that the only way to get a good result is to start by walking away.

There’s often an important difference between your idea—your mental image—of some life goal and the goal itself. If you become too attached to the idea, it may get in the way of the real goal, drawing you aside to pursue appearance rather than reality.

When good dreams go bad

Suppose you have a dream of becoming eminent in your professional field. Stop for a moment and consider exactly what that means. Does it mean earning the respect of your peers and colleagues, and demonstrating outstanding ability? Or having a job with a specific title, a specific salary level, certain perks, and a key to the executive washroom? Or becoming known as an expert whose views are automatically sought on just about all important decisions.

Sometimes the two will go together, but not always. The political maneuvers, ethical compromises, and competitive ruses needed to secure that fancy salary and job title might destroy the peer respect you claim that you want. At the very least, the extra pressure and demands might destroy any enjoyment you could have had in your achievement.

Some actors become so obsessed with celebrity that they do things that compromise the acting skill that produced it. Their dream—to reach a pinnacle of fame—takes over and leads them into a lifestyle that gives fame, but at the cost of their health, their physical and mental well-being, and their ability to do their job. Some end in jail. Many end in rehab. Their focus on a failing dream destroys any pleasure in their craft and undermines their ability to justify their celebrity status.

Certain sports stars are so afraid of slipping down the rankings that they begin to try too hard, hastening the process of decline into mediocrity. Many business executives try to trade on past glories to justify their position, though their former skills are now obsolete (have even have been lost) and people snicker behind their backs.

Losing the dream, gaining the reality

If you’re willing to give up the idea—the false but seductive dream—of becoming someone or achieving a particular goal, you may well increase your chances of doing it for real. That dream may have no longer have anything to do with the reality it mimics. After all, you probably formed it long ago, when you had almost no idea of what reaching your goal would take—or what it would be like when you got there. The reality is what you need to aim for; the dream is mostly compounded of fantasy and ignorance.

How often have you seen someone drop out entirely when they come to believe that they aren’t going to “make it” to their dream? Were they unable to reach any level of achievement? Or was it just that old, fantasy-based dream that they could not attain? Surely it would be better to reach where you can and enjoy the results, rather than walk away in dejection because you couldn’t reach something that may have been largely imaginary anyway?

If success becomes an obsession based on goals that exist only inside your head, is it worth the anxiety and fear of failure?

The major source of stress and burnout for many people is their own inflated, ego-driven expectations. Drop those and the reality might be a more successful and enjoyable life, based on real goals in place of fantastic, twisted dreams. The fear of not living up to an imagined—and likely impossible—level of perfection has probably destroyed more genuinely able artists, writers, scientists, and sports champions than any other setback.

Giving up in this way isn’t quitting. It isn’t simply walking away and admitting defeat. It’s standing back and accepting a new, more realistic goal, based on what you will enjoy and be able to achieve in ways that preserve your health and happiness. It’s letting go of false dreams and images based on ignorance and wishful thinking.

Above all, it’s coming to terms with who you are and what really matters to you. And that, believe me, can be the very highest achievement of all.

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Articles posted between 2005 and June 2007 can still be read on the old URL: www.slowleadership.org.

Until you can work out where happiness comes from (at least for you), you’ll always be chasing it.

It’s probably fair to say that we all want to be happy. So where does happiness come from? If you aren’t sure where to look, you’re not that likely to find it. But maybe what works for you isn’t to be found in all the glib prescriptions for happiness? These reflections on happiness at work and in life could help.

Can we make ourselves happy by determined effort? Is it a matter of choosing the right mental attitude? Can we follow some prescription or guru? Or is it all down to luck?

Making ourselves happy by specific actions has a very poor track record of success. People fix on some future outcome as a source of happiness, but after achieving it through effort and determination, discover that it doesn’t make them happy after all. They work to obtain some desired goal (a job, a relationship. a purchase, a position in society) and find that the reality isn’t what they had hoped for.

Why is happiness hard to find?

  • People are extremely poor at predicting the future, usually assuming it will closely resemble the past. That rarely happens. Even if it is similar, there will be enough differences to make some people happier that they expected to be, and others a good deal more miserable.
  • People allow present needs and concerns to color future ones. Because we’re eager for what’s in fashion today, we assume it will still appeal to us in 12 months’ time. That’s not likely either, in many cases.
  • Nor do the synthetic prescriptions of gurus have a better track record. Gurus are more likely to offer what will be acceptable today than what may fit us in some months’ or years’ time. Many gurus offer only platitudes and versions of society’s current myths. These have no greater chance of providing happiness than whatever we can think up ourselves.
  • People are easily distracted by minor benefits that quickly become irrelevant or irritating.
  • People easily allow current emotions to out-weigh reason. Desire trumps commonsense. By the time we have whatever we so desire today, that emotion may well have disappeared.

Maybe it’s all a matter of attitude?

Is happiness to be found by cultivating the right mental attitude? Can we choose to be happy and stay that way almost regardless of events?

There is some evidence to support the idea. Research has shown that even those suffering terminal conditions, major handicaps, or lifelong suffering can just as easily experience happiness as anyone else. The notion that inner happiness depends on external circumstances (wealth, possessions, fame, health) does not seem to be true. Most people prefer to have good circumstances if they can, but none guarantee happiness. Our minds are also adept at reframing problems or set-backs to make them less hurtful. If you don’t get what you want, you’ll probably convince yourself it wasn’t so important anyhow.

What people say makes them happy may be no more than convention. Most people, if asked, say they love their families. The evidence of marital discord, physical and mental abuse, domestic violence, and divorces and break-ups suggests that much of this claim is based on saying the right thing.

Maybe happiness is only self-delusion?

This is a tough question to answer. If you feel happy, whatever the cause, who is to say that your feeling isn’t real? Even if, viewed from the outside, what you are doing is fooling yourself. Indeed, can anyone else ever set themselves up as an arbiter of your happiness? Surely only you can know how you feel. Happiness may be an emotion people crave, but they still subject it to various judgments of authenticity. To accept that you are happy may be more about conforming to particular ideals of happiness than anything else. Sometimes feeling happy may even be dismissed on that basis. It could be chance whether happiness occurs in the only version we will admit is worth the name.

For example, you can try to induce feelings (including happiness), but people rarely accept those as the real thing. Drug users try to induce feelings of bliss, but their actual lifestyle is almost always sordid and unhappy, save for brief periods of drug-induced ecstasy.

Perhaps it’s all chance?

So is happiness simply a matter of luck and genetic makeup? Are some people born to be happy; and do the rest of us merely happen upon moments of happiness, more or less regardless of what we do to seek it out?

It seems certain that chance plays the major part in external events: so, if externals make us happy, that is mostly a matter of chance. Since all emotions are linked to the current bodily state, it could well be chance whether the right state, the right event, the right feeling, and the right definition of happiness all arrive at the same time.

It’s odd that something so many people define as the purpose of life is so hard to pin down. What if happiness is only a label we apply after the event; a way of describing pleasing types of sensations after they have arrived?Would it still be so sought after? Would it still be rated so highly?

Happiness is what makes you happy

Perhaps, after all, the best approach to happiness is to stop worrying about defining exactly what it in advance, or where it comes from, and get on with life.

Happiness is what makes you happy, not what society or anyone else approves, what some guru prescribes, or what is laid down by the current fashion as “authentic.” Often it isn’t even what people expect. They find themselves happy almost in spite of what they imagined might produce that feeling.

Happiness at work isn’t any different. To find it, all you really need to do is observe yourself closely. When something makes you happy, find ways to do more of it. When something else upsets your happiness, find ways to avoid it whenever you can.

Slowing down often increases people’s chances of happiness, because it gives them more time to observe and reflect on how they feel after each event. Instead of rushing through life, blindly following some happiness prescription, they are able to work out what is right for them. They don’t subscribe to platitudes like: “money cannot make you happy” or “happiness is other people.” Money can produce both happiness and misery and other people can be a joy or a royal pain in the posterior.

Happiness is what makes you happy. Stick with that and you won’t go far wrong.

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