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Thursday, July 26, 2020

Stress-busters: Being more detached

A potent source of stress is taking everything too personally. It’s easy to see criticism as a personal attack, or a setback as some kind of malice aimed directly at you. Neither viewpoint is going to help solve the problem. Both will send your stress levels soaring. Here’s an alternative.
I’m writing this article with a sense of trepidation. On previous occasions when I’ve turned to this topic, it’s generated quite amazing levels of abuse from a few people. So I’m going to start with an explanation. It seems that some people equate detachment with emotional coldness, standoffishness, and a kind of superior disdain for normal human feelings. That isn’t what detachment means for me. I’m not suggesting people turn off their feelings (it’s impossible anyway) or adopt some sort of lofty disregard for others. To understand detachment properly, you have to understand attachment first.

The common phrase “I’m attached to it/him/her” may imply liking or love, but people don’t become attached to stress, worry, overwork, obsessive competition, or always being first because they love it. Attachment, in the sense I’m dealing with, means being “stuck on” something. You can’t let go of it, however much it’s hurting you. You’re clinging to it because of some kind of habitual or past emotional bond. Usually these aren’t positive emotions either.

Attachment is an obsession. People half kill themselves with overwork and stress because they believe they must, not because they enjoy it. So . . . to be detached means to be able to step back from events and see them in their proper perspective.

The simplest way to define greater detachment is to see it as the freedom not to be “sucked in” every time—whether that’s into feelings that hurt you, actions that make you feel worse, or responses that don’t help.

Why detachment is desirable

There’s something delightful about being able to stand and look at events and remain in control of your feelings and reactions. If you want to, you can jump in. If you choose not to this time, you can stand aside. It’s your choice. You aren’t at the mercy of an internal “reaction reflex” that is just waiting to be set off by the next setback, the next jerk who pisses you off, or the next unreasonable demand from some idiot on high.

You are just you: conscious of what you are choosing and free to act in whatever way seems best to you. You’re in control of yourself and armored against most of the petty irritations that build into a serious stress load.

How to become more detached

Here are some ideas that can help you to become a little more detached; to let your own wishes and thoughts take precedence over the shouts, opinions, and commands from the outside:
  • Know what is most likely to suck you in. Take some time to consider the patterns in your life. What sets you going? What causes you to “lose it” and do things that you regret later? How can you recognize them before they draw you in? Make a list and memorize it. Then work at avoiding whatever’s on the list.

  • Build a habit of pausing and giving yourself time to think. It may take a long time to make this stick, but it will pay huge dividends. Instead of jumping into action, or snapping out a response, say or do something neutral: “I’d like to think about that a moment,” or “Let me get back to you on that one.” Buy yourself time to get past your first response and start considering the options. Try to make more conscious choices whenever you can.

  • Build a new self-image. Instead of being someone who’s quick to react or speak, start seeing yourself as the quiet person who rarely jumps in first, but who everyone listens to when he or she does say something. At first it will seem false and theatrical. But if you stick at it, it will mix with the rest of your personality and produce a new, calmer, more influential, and more popular you.

  • When you feel your emotions on the boil and your hackles rising, ask yourself whether what you believe at that moment is really true. Force yourself to stop and question your beliefs and feelings fully. You’ll be surprised how often you discover that you’re all fired up by something you’re assuming, something you’ve been told (on what authority?), or something that isn’t even real.

  • Watch others. See how simple it is for people to get sucked in—and how easily they’re manipulated as a result. Watch how a simple, trivial situation is turned into a drama, then a Hollywood disaster epic. Consider whether that’s how you want to live.

  • Ask yourself whether what you’re doing right now is your own choice, or the result of being sucked in by something that you’ve got hooked on. Notice how each one feels. Compare stress and frustration levels. Decide whether you want to be swept along or make your own decisions.
The best antidote to getting snagged into negative situations and responses is always to be aware of what’s happening inside and why you’re doing whatever you’re doing.

Being more detached means giving yourself more space and time to be aware. It means freeing yourself from compulsions that don’t serve your best interests. It means being master or mistress of your own mind, controlling your emotions, and choosing your actions with care. And it means only accepting the amount of stress that you are willing to suffer, instead of what events or other people want to unload onto you.



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Tuesday, July 24, 2020

How to find and recognize a civilized job

Guidelines for making sure that the place where you work is a place you will go on wanting to be.

Spotting the signs of undue pressure and macho management is useful, but, if you’re considering a job change or just starting out on a career, seeing when a job will be civilized is just as important. You need to know what to seek out, not just what to avoid once you’ve found it.
What are the signs of civilized work? If you want to choose an employer, a job, and a career wisely, these are the things to look for:

  • Work with a manageable workload that allows enough time over for pursuing new ideas and making a personal contribution. Everyone needs the opportunity to put more of themselves into their work than just the labor of completing scheduled tasks. Overwork doesn’t just ruin work/life balance, in the sense of time available for non-work activities. It also stops work itself being satisfying. There’s never any time to step outside the strict confines of the daily grind to explore new ideas or approaches. The to-do list becomes a prison that blocks out everything else.

  • Clear evidence that others will value and respect what you do. It’s hard to take a pride in your work if no one cares how you do what you do, just so long as you meet some specific targets. It’s far more satisfying to feel that you can win respect for a job well done than simply reach some goal by any available means. Hitting that target comes only occasionally (and you know it will be followed by a new, higher one). Knowing that you’re doing a fine job, and that people recognize you for that, can be a daily source of pleasure in your work.

  • A chance to work with people whom you respect and whose opinions you value. No amount of money will ever make up for working for a boss whom you think is an idiot and an asshole; or with people whom you neither like nor respect. Work is a social environment. Unless that environment suits you and gives you pleasure from being there, each day is going to be eight or more hours of misery. That’s why corporate culture matters so much. Trying to live and work in a toxic culture is like trying to exist in a cloud of poisonous gases.

  • A reasonable degree of control over what you do and any decisions that affect your job. Anything else is slavery. You shouldn’t accept it for an hour, regardless of how much you’re being paid.

  • Work that means something to you and matches your values. Doing meaningless work is soul-destroying drudgery. Doing work that you don’t value will leave you feeling empty and dissatisfied at the end of every day. The only way to feel good about what you do is to do something that makes you feel good in itself. If, for example, you try to shut your mind to a toxic culture and management style that makes you feel bad every time you think about it, how are you going to feel after a month, six months, a year? You’ll have to abandon your own values and conscience to survive. But whatever you do, somewhere deep inside you’ll know you’re behaving like a coward and spitting on things that you hold dear. That knowledge will eat away at you until it destroys all your peace of mind.

  • A culture that values fairness, justice, and an ethical approach to business. Too many organizations today act as if the ends justify the means, and honesty and ethical values are indulgences that they can’t afford. You can sense it like a bad smell in the background. Ignore all the flashiness and forced good comradeship. If something in the air that you can’t quite pin down makes you feel sick, take good heed. Compromising with nastiness and dishonesty will rub off on you like a disfiguring skin disease. Besides, if the culture allows dishonesty, subterfuge, unethical practices, and unfair treatment in the cause of profit, that’s how it will treat you.

  • A willingness from those in senior positions to listen. Few things are so frustrating as a management culture based on closed minds and open mouths. Nothing leads more quickly to failure, despotism, and the punishment of the innocent. Be warned!

  • An organization that values honest feedback and takes notice when staff aren’t happy. Any organization that punishes people for rocking the boat, demonizes whistle-blowers, and rewards yes-men should be seen for what it is: a gang of mindless thugs. Get away as fast as you can run.

  • A sensible attitude from the organization and the bosses to the position of work in each person’s life. It’s quite reasonable for the organization to expect loyalty, commitment, solid effort, and an appropriate input related to level and salary. It is wholly unreasonable to expect anyone to sell their life and soul to their employer in return for cash. Anyone who does that is far more shameless than any prostitute. Prostitutes only sell their bodies. An organization who demands that you sell your heart and soul as well is many times worse than any pimp.

  • The willingness to continue to change as circumstances change. A rigid organization—especially one that works on the basis of “our way or the highway”—is both arrogant and stupid. Why would you even consider becoming part of that?
If I had to sum all this advice up in a single rule it would be this: look around carefully and sniff out the ratio of assholes to others. The more assholes, the less you should even consider working there. And if the assholes are rewarded for their noxious behavior, so long as they hit the targets, run as fast as you can.

Happiness and satisfaction at work is always a choice. You can (and should) choose what you believe will work for you and give you the kind of life you want to have. Never choose just what will offer the most cash and power in the shortest time, regardless of anything else. You’ll regret it in very short order.

The choice won’t always be an easy one; it may cost you effort, determination, and forgoing some amount of money and what it can buy to choose happiness. Nor will it always be black versus white. But the more often you can choose wisely from among the available alternatives, the more often, I believe, you will find work that enhances your life, instead of diminishing it.



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Wednesday, July 18, 2020

Chickens, eggs, and happiness

Do you need to be successful first to be happy, or does happiness produce success?

It’s an important question, because making happiness conditional on success is the usual path; and it doesn’t seem to be working for many people. They endure considerable amounts of unhappiness, often for many years, in the belief that when success comes they will finally be happy. What if it isn’t true? That’s surely worth thinking about carefully.
When I started working, I bought into all the conventional ideas about what made for a happy and successful life. A good career, a good income, a good position, a good pension to round it all off. Get those first, and happiness will surely follow.

Well, I got most of them and I found that happiness somehow hadn’t seen the need to fulfill its part of the bargain. Oh, I was happy sometimes—maybe quite often. But it wasn’t due to any of those. Earning a high salary brought stress and ethical compromises I wasn’t happy about. A top position in the hierarchy brought yet more pressures, along with jealousy and politically-inspired dirty tricks. Inflation ate into my salary and pension fund and employers went back on their promises.

What really brought me happiness rarely had anything to do with conventional ideas of success. Mostly, it was due to things totally unconnected with my work. Of course, I was sometimes happy at work too. When I was busy doing something that I enjoyed and made me happy, I was often amazingly successful. When I tried to be successful, and accepted temporary unhappiness and boredom as its price, I rarely managed to reach my goals. If I accepted short-term unhappiness as the price of long-term success—and I very often did—what I got in return was the opposite: short-term success paid for with long-term unhappiness.

Hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of people spend their lives doing work they hate, and enduring pressures that ruin their health and cripple their relationships, with the sole purpose of being successful; which usually means gaining money, position, or fame, or all three. They tell themselves that once they’ve got what they want they’ll be happy. It rarely happens. What they gain has far less real value than all they have sacrificed to get it.

Weighing the evidence

Research has shown that, far from leading to happiness, success is more often dependent on being happy first. Happy people do better work, forge stronger relationships, are more likeable, learn more, take more productive risks, have better health, and live longer. How is this not success? How is a life doing things that you dislike and don’t make you feel happy—and that cause you stress, pain, and frustration—going to lead to enormous happiness sometime in the future; aside, that is, from the pure joy you would get by ceasing to do it at all?

Do you need wealth to be happy? If that is the case, most captains of industry should be delirious with joy all the time. I must say it doesn’t show. Mostly they’re rather grimly set on making yet more wealth for themselves. Perhaps even they don’t have enough money and success to produce the promised happiness? If so, that final state is so far beyond the reach of all ordinary people as to be worthless as an objective.

Some of you may object that lack of money produces misery. Sure enough. But since even extreme wealth seems to do little better in the happiness-producing line, the only logical conclusion must be that neither wealth, nor poverty, in themselves have much of a link with happiness. It’s more likely that what you do with however much, or little, wealth you possess is going to have a far greater impact on how you feel about your life and whether it brings you happiness.

Fame is the same. Are all famous people amazingly happy? I can’t see it, can you? We assume that they ought to be, but many are clearly not. If that’s the case, then fame has nothing much to do with happiness either. The same is true for status and position. All are neutral in terms of producing happiness. For some who possess them, they help. For others, they produce only misery. Isn’t it more likely that happy people stay happy if they become rich, successful, or famous, and use their wealth in happy ways; and miserable people do exactly the opposite, however successful they are?

So what is success?

We need a new definition of life success, I think; one that isn’t based solely on material possessions or hierarchical outcomes. Rather than equate success with wealth, power, or fame—or even achievements—and tell ourselves that happiness will follow, it would be more sensible to equate success in life with happiness, then look for whatever furthered that happiness.

We’ve been told that money equals happiness. It doesn’t. That work, hard work, is good for you and leads to success and happiness. No, that doesn’t follow either. How about saying that what makes you happy produces happiness, whether that’s work, pleasure, relationships, or just the love of a good cat?

When it comes down to it, being happy is what nearly everyone wants, so why not take it wherever it comes from? And if, as the researchers suggest, being happy is the best route to being successful as well, what alternative is likely to be any better?

So take note. Stress, overwork, long hours, constant striving, and ruthless political manoevering may well produce money, power, and fame, but they won’t deliver on the promise of happiness.

Besides, while you’re grimly clawing your way towards the top and suffering as a result, won’t it be truly maddening if some happy person sails past you, enjoying every moment of life, and sweeps ahead on a wave of sheer pleasure in what they are doing?

You pays your money, as the saying goes, and you takes your choice. Just make sure that the choice you make is really worth what you will need to pay for it. Conventional pictures of success are frightful price gougers, all of them.



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Tuesday, July 17, 2020

Stress-busters: The one-day “retreat”

Religious people have long used retreats—time totally away from the world and its distractions—as a way to deepen their understanding and refresh their spirits. Those are goals that can benefit anyone. You don’t need to be religious to use the idea yourself to ward off stress.
The religious retreat is a specific period completely away from the world and worldly things: a time set aside for religious practice and that calm and quiet that many people feel that they need to get their view of life back into perspective. Many Jewish people, for example, keep the sabbath as one day each week free from work of any kind; a time for family-based rituals and a reminder of their cultural origins. Indeed, their ancestors so revered this time set aside from the world that they believed it to be both a commandment and a blessing from their god.

Such a good idea need not belong only to the realm of formal religious activities. Most of us would benefit from regular breaks away from all the pressures and distractions of our lives; taking time to refresh ourselves, enjoying peace and quiet, thinking and renewing our perspective on life, or just catching up with sleep, family, and friends. Best of all, it could be time devoted mostly to resting and letting our minds wander into paths far away from the daily stresses and pressures of work.

I think we would all do well to take such regular one-day “retreats” in this way; preferably every week, but at least as often as we are able to do so. You could, of course, combine it with religious practices of any kind, if you wish. But that isn’t the essence of the idea. The purpose that I have in mind is a specific period of rest and relaxation to help deal with stress and the many ways that it distorts our thinking and undermines our health and peace of mind.

Here’s how a purely secular and non-religious version might work.
  • You set aside a clear period of 24 hours for your retreat. That time is sacrosanct. Nothing must disturb it short of a national or personal emergency.

  • You remove all possible distractions. No telephone calls. No e-mail. No use of computers, not even to surf the Net. No TV, radio or newspapers.

  • You must not do anything connected with your work. Nothing, however small or seemingly insignificant. And that includes golf with potential customers, “talking shop” with friends, reading anything work-related, or simply thinking about work problems. You can make physical effort (playing sport, walking, gardening, painting the house), or mental effort (spending time at some hobby, playing or listening to music, reading some challenging book, writing on non-work subjects, watching serious programming on TV), but none of it must be related in anyway to your job.

  • There’s no need to be serious or “worthy” in what you do. Probably the best way to spend the time is playing, relaxing, and generally having fun. My only suggestion would be not to “veg out” and waste the whole time on the couch in front of some mindless TV program.

  • If you have visitors or go out to visit friends, try very hard to make sure that they aren’t directly connected with your work or you’ll be tempted back into talking shop. If you do have some work contact with them, gently ask them to stay away from conversations about work topics while they’re with you. If they can’t, invite them on another occasion instead.

  • At least 8 full hours must be set aside for sleep. No excuses.

  • All meals must be leisurely and relaxed. If you enjoy cooking, cook. If you don’t, eat out.

  • At least half the non-sleeping time ought perhaps to be devoted to being with family or friends. This isn’t a rule, just a suggestion. Some people enjoy social time. Others find greater refreshment in time alone. It’s your choice.

  • Try to get plenty of fresh air. Nowadays, most of us spend far too much of our time indoors. Walking or cycling is good.

  • If work-related matters (or people) try to intrude, they really must be ignored. If you aren’t strict about this, your attempt at a retreat is doomed. Nothing must be allowed to spoil it. No exceptions. Allow just one in and all the rest will push through the crack you opened. It’s only 24 hours. Almost nothing is truly so urgent that it cannot wait that long.

  • It’s best to hold retreats like this regularly, on set days. That way, everyone else gets used to your schedule and knows that it’s pointless trying to interrupt.
The benefits are, I think, obvious. Aside from the rest, refreshment, and re-establishment of perspective, just the self-discipline involved is likely to be extremely beneficial. So is the process of reminding yourself—regularly—that it’s your life and you should be able to set aside some part of it for yourself.

So consider this: if you can’t do this, how are you different from a slave who lives continually at the whim of someone else’s agenda?



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Thursday, July 12, 2020

The five least recognized thieves of productive time

How to win back large parts of your day.

When people write about time management, they usually focus on impersonal matters: prioritization, organization, various forms of distraction and loss of focus. All sound topics, and all safely open to being dealt with by training or some teachable techniques. But when I look back on my own career, I can see that these safe topics miss at least five of the most common—and most greedy—thieves of productive time. These are the five.
Not only do these five behaviors waste time on a grand scale, they’re all notable stress producers as well. You can’t deal with them by techniques, fancy software, or skill training. The behaviors I’m thinking of are too personal for that. The only way to deal with them is to bring them into the open and see them for what they are: brazen thieves of time, attention, and—most pernicious of all—peace of mind. Then determine to wage all-out war on them to break yourself of the hold they have on you.

Holding grudges

Like a corpse rising from its grave, putrid and stinking of decay, the habit of holding grudges digs around in what’s dead and gone and drags it out to corrupt the present. How many actions are taken in the workplace with the express intention of paying off old scores? How many projects are derailed, how much information withheld, how much time and money wasted, just so that one person can take pleasure in making sure another’s plans fail or career is harmed?

Scoring petty points

The second habit consumes significant amounts of time and effort to no purpose, and is almost as shameful as the first. Meetings are often riddled with items there for the express purpose of scoring points. The sole purpose of this tawdry activity—the cause of hours wasted on needless reporting, worthless presentations, and sham questions—is to score some insignificant victory against a rival. Do these activities produce anything beneficial? Nothing whatsoever. Do they waste time, increase stress, and send people away angry and humiliated? I think the answer is obvious.

Jealousy

Jealousy defiles too many choices and actions: jealousy of another’s achievements, career progress, popularity, or even looks. If holding grudges is like a science-fiction corpse climbing from its grave, jealousy reminds me of vampire stories; of some smooth and cloying creature that sucks the blood out of living people to sustain its own existence. I have seen fine creative ideas shelved, product improvements reversed, customers deliberately lost, and false accusations raised, with the sole purpose of feeding someone’s jealousy.

Anyone who steals from their employer is rightly labeled a thief. Someone who wastes resources through lack of ability is likely to be fired for incompetence. But the jealous ones—the ones who often destroy far more value and throw away resources on a larger scale to feed their obsession—all too often get away with it.

I began deliberately with the most obnoxious and serious habits. My last two are, in many ways, ridiculous and childish. Yet they still consume huge amounts of time that might otherwise be put to good use; and they probably cause at least as much stress and pain as any of the other three.

The habit of gossiping

That’s certainly true of gossiping. How many hours are wasted in idle, often malicious tittle-tattle? How many e-mails, instant messages, and phone calls are sent with no other purpose than to spread tales, or delight in cruel or salacious rumors? And don’t waste time pointing out to me that various media publications consist of nothing else. People make money out of peddling drugs, but that isn’t seen as a reason for encouraging the trade. Gossip is a total waste of time at best, and usually considerably worse: mean-minded, self-righteous, bigoted, and petty.

Countless people suffer stress and pain because others gossip about them, knowing full well the hurt they will cause. Time and resources are wasted, communication systems abused, and reputations undermined for the same reason. Saying that it’s common doesn’t excuse it.

Showing-off

The final item on my list is showing-off. How many presentations have you sat through that were put together for that purpose? How many pointless meetings are organized so that someone can indulge in a public display of their importance? How many useless reports have been generated in pursuit of personal aggrandizement, or fatuous requests made for unnecessary data? The pompous jerks who inflate themselves at every opportunity may be ridiculous—even comic—but they still waste massive amounts of time and cause extra work for everyone around them.

Any organization—or any leader, come to that—that truly wishes to cut costs and eliminate waste could do no better than start by declaring total war on these five habits, personally and organizationally. And any individual—yes, maybe even you—who wants to cut their stress levels and increase their peace of mind should look deeply into their mind and actions and tear out all traces of these miserable habits.

They are worthless, they are poisonous, and they are hateful. Treat them like the malignant diseases they are. Don’t tolerate them for another day in yourself, and do all that you can to discourage them in others.

It’s my guess that you will be amazed at the time—and cost reductions—that will follow; to say nothing of the massive improvement in the working atmosphere.



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Thursday, July 05, 2020

Stress-busters: How to worry less and live more

Today’s world creates anxiety like never before. It’s time to fight back.

I have to start this article with a confession. For most of my life, I have been a world champion worrier. I was able to worry about almost anything. And, if I didn’t have anything specific to worry about, I would worry that I must have missed what I ought to be fretting over. The workplace, of course, provides an endless menu of possible sources of worry, which is why it’s often so stressful. Anxiety produces stress and stress produces anxiety. They feed off each other, making a perpetual motion machine of worrying. If anything good can come out of all that anxiety, it might be this: my experience-based ideas on how and why to quit worrying so much.
Most worriers believe that they either must worry (they have genuine reasons to do so), or that they cannot stop themselves, even if they see it doesn’t make sense. Let’s begin with understanding the causes of worry and whether it might be of some use. Until you are convinced that worrying is of no benefit to you, you won’t give it up anyway.
  • Worrying is a form of superstition. A great deal of worrying is driven by the unstated fear that, if you don’t worry about some issue, you’ll somehow be punished for your slipshod attitude; that some universal force will spot your dereliction of worrying duty and bring you back into line by making all the bad things happen. Of course, once you recognize that this kind of crazy, childish behavior lies behind much of the anxiety you’re plaguing yourself with, it’s tough to go on doing it without laughing.

  • Worrying is totally useless as a way to solve whatever the problem is. As Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich once said (not Kurt Vonnegut as I was told originally): “ . . . worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.”

  • Worrying takes a heap of energy. Despite being useless in any practical sense, worrying absorbs a great deal of mental and even physical energy. After a day spent worrying, you will be as tired as if you had tried to calculate the value of pi to 300 decimal places while running a marathon. And you will still have achieved nothing.

  • Worrying is amazingly distracting. While you are worrying, your mind cannot settle on anything else. The worrying constantly gets in the way of whatever you try to do. People tell you things—sometimes important things. You don’t hear them or you forget them within seconds, because your mind is totally taken up with that wretched source of anxiety.
If you’re now convinced that worrying offers no benefits and considerable drawbacks, let’s consider some ways to give it up.
  • Don’t accept that you are helpless. I won’t say it will be easy to give it up, but worrying is just a habit. Perhaps it would be better to call it an addiction. Like all addictions, it’s going to be tough to quit, but you can do it. There will likely be some “cold turkey” to get through, but just think about all that extra energy and enjoyment of life that you’ll have once you’re no longer a slave to continual anxieties.

  • Practice letting go. Worrying is all about control. People worry because something is threatening to happen that they don’t like. If they can do something to stop it happening they will. There’s no cause to worry then, it’s over. But, in all too many cases, we aren’t able to stop whatever it is threatening us: we aren’t able to be in control. So we worry instead. It’s a form of quasi-control. By worrying about whatever it is, we imagine all the ways we would control it, if only we could. The more you are able to accept things the way they are, the less you will worry. No one ever worried about anything they simply accepted. And accepting whatever it is will probably be the best way to start responding to it positively as well, so you’ll get a double benefit.

  • Most worries are totally imaginary. We can all imagine truly terrible outcomes. They rarely happen. One way to curb your worries is to sit down and deliberately imagine the very worst that your mind can come up with. Two things will likely result: you’ll realize how ridiculous the whole thing is; and everything else will seem pretty tame by comparison.

  • Worries don’t exist. So you don’t need to waste time over them. It’s obvious. If a problem exists, it isn’t a worry, it’s a fact. You have to cope with it some way and that becomes an exercise in problem-solving, not worrying. Worries are always about what may happen, but hasn’t yet. Therefore, they don’t exist. When, and if, they do, they’ll be problems to be solved. Until then, they are nothing but rogue neurons in your brain.

  • Try planning instead. Planning is considering what might reasonably happen and getting yourself ready. It’s practical and useful. Even if events don’t work out that way, you will probably have learned something useful in the process. Worrying is imagining what will almost certainly never happen, and then imagining how you would fail to deal with that imaginary outcome.

  • Never feel guilty about not worrying. Not only is guilt a totally useless and entirely negative emotion, but you have nothing whatever to feel guilty about. To feel guilty about not worrying is like berating yourself for not thinking about ten yellow goldfishes balancing on the nose of an alligator. Both are simply thoughts, and ridiculous ones too. Why should you feel guilty about not thinking them?

  • Don’t think too much about what other people have achieved. It will only make you feel dissatisfied and start you worrying again. At least 50% of the good things that happen to people is pure chance; the rest is a mixture of solid effort and unexpectedly good outcomes from what began as mistakes. Do what you do and be happy.

  • If you start to take yourself seriously, take two aspirin and lie down in a darkened room until the fit passes. What do you know about yourself for certain? Most of your ideas don’t work, most of your hopes and plans fail, most of your triumphs were luck, and most of your choices were either made for you by others or happened by default. And you take a person like that seriously? All that stuff is just to impress other people, right? There was an old saying that went: “No one is a hero to his valet.” Hardly anyone has a valet nowadays, but you get my drift.




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Wednesday, July 04, 2020

Doing without home runs

Real change is usually built on a series of small steps made regularly

People’s wish for better personal development has produced a publishing bonanza. Go to your neighborhood bookstore. Look along the shelves of self-help and self-improvement books. What do most of them have in common? A tendency to focus on people who have made spectacular changes to their lives, often based on an instantaneous “conversion” to some point of view. It’s the personal development equivalent of being “born again.” Does it work? It certainly does for the writers. However, relying on a series of “big hits” is a poor strategy for making change itself.

Writers and journalists have to sell their work. Both groups know that something surprising or shocking sells better than a story that’s more mundane. They know that instant answers sell better than instructions to persevere, and simple prescriptions do better than complex ones. Self-help writers also prefer emphasizing the positive, so their version of the blockbuster scoop links instant, radical transformation with a climactic event like walking across hot coals or attending a seminar by some motivational guru. “This book changes lives” is standard back-cover copy—even if the only life changed was the author’s when the royalty check arrived.

I’m not denying that sudden, dramatic breakthroughs can happen. What I’m suggesting is they’re no more common than any other “once in a lifetime” event—which means very uncommon indeed. Certainly not something you should take as the norm, or something you should set your sights on when you decide to make some significant change in your own life.

Games of baseball—or cricket, since I’m English—are typically won by the slow and steady accumulation of singles, not the spectacular hits to the boundary for four or six, or home runs in baseball. It’s exciting to watch the batter produce a huge hit right out of the park, but depending on big hits alone is not a reliable strategy for winning games.

Slow and steady wins

Successful personal growth too is best achieved by a consistent, long-term series of baby steps. This approach isn’t spectacular—certainly not the stuff of best-selling self-improvement books—but it works. All the small gains gradually amount to something big, sometimes faster than you imagine. It’s like the laws of compound interest in investing. If you invest $1000 each year for 25 years and earn only 5% interest, you’ll have $53,499.81 at the end. And that’s certain. You could “invest” $1000 per year in a lottery, or some other speculative venture, and win a huge amount. More likely, at the end of the 25 years you’d have nothing— not even the $25,000 it cost you. Waiting and hoping for the big one is a poor investment strategy with money or development. A consistent series of actions to enhance your career, develop your skills, and broaden your mind, even if each one is quite small, is a far better choice. Each builds on the last. Each one sticks because it’s a pace of change you can cope with.

Don’t focus your personal development on home runs. It may work for some, but that’s mostly luck. Sure, someone wins the big lottery prize, but you have a much greater chance of being struck by lightning or run down by someone distracted by yammering on their cell phone. Besides, just as many lottery winners are broke again in a few years. There’s no guarantee that a sudden, dramatic personal breakthrough will stick. “Easy come, easy go” applies to more than money.

If you want to slow down and live life more deliberately—and you should, there’s little doubt of that, unless you’re chronically idle—start small, then keep it going. Stop one task you don’t need to do. Take one extra hour a week for thinking time. That should be possible for everyone. And when you’ve done it, do it again: another pointless task dropped, another useless meeting canceled, another hour added to thinking time.

Keep going like that and you truly will revolutionize your life. Today, July 4th, celebrates a climactic event in the United states, the Declaration of Independence. Was that it? Did the colonists simply announce their freedom and go back to living their lives? Of course not. The declaration was just the start of length battles and struggles to make it stick. What won the war was a series of victories, plus some defeats, mostly small and relatively insignificant in themselves. Only taken all together did they change the world.



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Thursday, June 28, 2020

Counting the costs of compromise

What happens when you abandon your beliefs and dreams for the sake of fitting in and getting on?

Conventional management thinking places a large premium on being a “good team player.” That sounds harmless enough—even beneficial—but it’s worth considering more carefully what it means in practice, especially in workplace cultures based on macho styles of leadership.
To be a good team player ought to imply nothing more than acting in ways that don’t cause needless problems for other people. Perhaps it might also suggest friendliness and co-operation. After all, someone who acts totally selfishly, always demanding that their needs are put first, is neither pleasant to be around nor a useful colleague.

This is the commonsense or natural picture of a good team player: friendly, co-operative, willing, when needed, to take a back seat for the sake of helping the team. Not too selfish, not too demanding, not too solitary or withdrawn to make a satisfactory colleague.

The new version—the macho manager’s team player

But that’s not what today’s macho leaders have in mind when they use the phrase. To them, a “good team player” is totally compliant at all times; never even thinks of rocking the boat; never questions long hours or causes problems by wanting to take vacation when it’s not convenient (which is almost always). When he or she is away from the workplace, supposedly relaxing on some beach or enjoying a break, the good team player is still 100% available: checking in constantly with those still at work, answering e-mails, talking on the telephone, dealing with problems.

This kind of good team player isn’t purely the result of massive staff layoffs that have reduced manning to the level where anyone’s absence causes major problems. This kind of team player is also a large part of the cause. Organizations know that they can strip staffing to the bone, and beyond, precisely because those who are left will still cope—regardless of the crushing hours, the stress of being continually on-call, and the havoc it makes in the rest of their lives.

Why do people put up with it?

In large part, of course, organizations rely on people's feelings of loyalty. Not loyalty to the business, mostly, but loyalty to colleagues, who will be forced to take up any slack if someone refuses to give up vacation time or work a 60 or 70-hour week.

Fear of being thought disloyal, however misplaced, does at least provide an explanation that shows most people in a good light. The other reasons behind people’s willingness to play the “good team player” are not so pleasant: greed, cowardice and ambition.

Compromising with unreasonable organizational demands to earn lots of cash, snag that promotion, or through fear of being excluded from the ranks of high-fliers and corporate favorites, suggests base and selfish motives: the complete opposite of the public persona of the good team player. Yet these reasons behind playing the “good team player” role are probably as common as the others. No one is truly coerced into staying compliant. It always takes some measure of personal acceptance. In some people, that acceptance is downright eager . . . provided the price is right.

Counting the cost of compliance

Here’s what happens as a result. The organization goes on reducing staffing and piling on fresh demands, since it has now created a culture in which anyone who refuses the extra, unpaid hours is marked down and ostracized. Managers continue to rely on a compliant workforce, who will do as they are told and even come to pat themselves on the back for being so loyal and helpful—ignoring the proofs, in the form of yet more pink slips or even higher demands, that this loyalty is a one-way street.

Those with the most courage, the highest levels of self-confidence, the greatest commitment to ethical principles, and the strongest personal values leave. If they are replaced at all, their successors will be chosen to be less “difficult” (and will almost certainly earn less money too). Although this represents a shocking loss of talent, many organizations ignore that because the process gets rid of “troublemakers” and people who don’t match their twisted definition of the good team player.

The ones who stick it out are faced with an ongoing choice between fitting in or risking trouble by trying to achieve some kind of work/life balance. Every concession to the organization, however small, eats away at their ability to resist future expectations. What began as a willingness to do some extra work to see things through a bad patch becomes the norm.

High-fliers are often hardest hit

One of the differences between high levels of stress and actual burnout is the presence of depression. Someone suffering burnout has given up. He or she no longer has the power to fight, nor the self-esteem to put the blame on the organization, where it belongs. The burnout victim was, typically, an ambitious high-flier, a good team player who gave and gave until there was nothing left to give. Being a high-flier doesn’t buy you a free pass. Going along with crazy demands through ambition or greed can lead you beyond the point where it’s still possible to back out without harm.

Facing the future

There should be no call to sacrifice the rest of life to work demands. Work is part of life, not the other way around. Civilized countries rightly outlawed once-common labor practices like employing children, paying in tokens that had to be redeemed at a company store, sweat-shop conditions, harassment, and sacking people without paying their outstanding wages. Did the leaders of the organizations of those times welcome such laws? Of course they didn't, since such practices benefited their profits. I don't say these are bad people (mostly). What they are is myopically focused on making money and able to convince themselves that the ends justify the means. Besides, the argument goes, it's a free society and plenty of workers are happy to accept the conditions offered.

Is this so? In a way, it is. In the past, people were forced to accept wretched working conditions or starve. What is amazing today is that so many of their descendants embrace them willingly. Organizations long ago learned that coercion was far less effective than creating a widespread belief that working your butt off is somehow meritorious—the sign of respectability, social status, virtue, and the much-hyped “good team player.” We live with a generation in charge of the world—my own—who have mostly swallowed wholesale the idea of the value of a strong work ethic.

Instead of attributing our unprecedented increase in wealth over the last fifty years to the right reason—technology-created productivity—many people still go with the idea that it’s due mostly to individual hard work; the way that hard work always made you better off in the good old pre-technological past (only it didn’t, outside of fairy tales). We prefer to believe in the sunny myths of the Great American Dream than recognize the realities of the world we actually live in. Even in the past, the majority of poor immigrants didn’t make a wonderful life, however hard they worked. A very few did, and they became the stuff of stories. The rest stayed poor and made out the best that they could. Nothing much has changed.

The cost of compromising with macho leadership can be extremely high, even for those few who claw their way into the ruling elite. A hundred years ago and more, the ultra-rich were characterized by a lifestyle that generally avoided work altogether, in favor of lavish parties and a cadre of henchmen who dealt with the tedious business of making yet more money. Today, even the ultra-rich have bought into the belief that work is somehow a good thing in itself. And since the rich and powerful always want the largest share of whatever is seen as most valuable at the time, today those ultra-rich executives are likely to spend the most time at work of anyone—and have the most hectic and stressful lifestyles. Maybe that is their punishment. In creating a culture that puts a totally irrational premium on long hours and hard work for their own sake, they have become victims of the monster that they unleashed.

I can only hope that the new generations entering the workplace have better sense than to compress their lives and dreams to fit into a broken system of deeply-flawed values. It's time to take back our time and our lives; time to find new ways to organize how people work together that don't threaten to destroy us.



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Wednesday, June 27, 2020

Keeping your sanity and your cool

In today’s manic workplaces, personal boundaries require constant attention.

Boundaries are essential to effective organizational functioning. They’re just as important to individual functioning too, especially in the workplace. It’s dreadfully easy to allow organizational needs to swamp your personal space, reducing you to an automaton whose only direction is the one currently set by organizational policies and goals. Here’s how to stop that happening.
Everyone knows the old saying that good fences make good neighbors. Nowhere is it more true than in the workplace, especially when it points to the need to establish and maintain personal boundaries in the face of continual pressures to lose your identity in the group.

Good fences make good neighbors because each side knows where the limits lie. This side is mine, where I can choose freely; that side is yours, where I can enter only with your permission. You don’t trespass on my side and I don’t try to eat into yours.

Where boundaries are poorly marked or uncertain, there will be a constant tendency to disputes, land grabs, turf wars, and the consequent resentments—even violence. No one is quite clear about their limits. Those who are—or feel themselves to be—stronger are tempted to encroach. Bullies can grab bits of someone else’s territory and hope to conceal their aggression behind a smokescreen of uncertainty. Such boundaries as remain are under continual threat.

Keeping your space clear

That’s not an uncommon situation in many organizations. The powerful (bosses, top executives, ambitious colleagues) stand on one side of each individual’s boundaries. On the other side are that person’s private needs, personal life, family obligations, career hopes, and health requirements. If the boundaries are unclear, weakly laid down, or easily breached, the strong will be tempted to encroach, nibbling away until little is left that is not under their direct control.

Without good personal fences, your time, your energy, your achievements, and your dreams are more or less up for grabs. Those bullies, domineering bosses, uncaring executives, and even so-called friends out for a free ride can just walk in and take more or less whatever they want: your time, your energy, your self-esteem, your confidence. The result is wage slavery.

Here are some ways to establish sound personal boundaries without alienating the guys on the other side.
  1. Start as you mean to go on. Setting and maintaining good “fences” from the outset will always be easier and less contentious than trying to establish them when others have become used to walking all over your patch.

  2. Be firm. Your boundaries are going to be tested. Others will try to take more time, energy, and personal space than you are willing to give. It’s tempting to give in a little, if only for the sake of seeming flexible. Don’t do it. It will always be harder to eject a squatter than stop them entering in the first place.

  3. Be crystal clear where your boundaries are. You can’t really blame the organization or the boss for trespassing on your private time, or requiring unreasonable work out of working hours, if you haven’t made it clear what you will do willingly, what you will do only in a true emergency, and what is going too far at any time.

  4. Defend against incursions. However clearly you lay down your barriers, there will be times when others cross them. If you don’t defend yourself, they’ll assume the boundaries weren’t meant seriously.

  5. Set your boundaries carefully. It’s well worth taking the time to be absolutely certain of where your boundaries should lie. If you aren’t sure, how can anyone else be? Constantly shifting them won’t work either. It will tempt others to assume that your decisions on boundaries are weak and easily changed.

  6. Negotiate when there is no dispute. The worst time of all to try to resolve any boundary problems is when they are in dispute. Don’t wait until the boss expects something you aren’t prepared to give to talk about the whole issue. By then, emotions are aroused and firm positions taken. If you have the good sense to discuss boundaries when everyone is relaxed and can see one another’s needs rationally, it will give you a handsome pay-off. Later, all it will usually take is a polite reminder of what was agreed to get everyone back on their own side of the line.

  7. Don’t violate others’ boundaries yourself. You’ll be in a weak position to defend your own, if it’s known that you’re quite ready to step over the line with others whenever it suits you.

  8. Don’t be a sucker for hard-luck stories. Not every attempt to snatch something inside your boundaries will arrive as an obvious incursion. You’ll face a good many pleas and much wheedling based on claims that it will only happen just this once. Any time you give in sets a precedent and the next incursion will be harder to resist.

  9. Don’t be greedy. Other people also have legitimate claims. Colleagues may reasonably expect a helping hand in a crisis. The organization that pays you has a sound claim for value for its money. The boss can reasonably expect respect basic loyalty. If you push your boundaries out too far, they’ll never be respected, whatever you do.
Establishing and maintaining good personal boundaries works because prevention of abuse is always better than cure. As a human being, you have a moral right to a private life, with time and energy enough to enjoy it. It’s also necessary for physical and mental health. By setting firm boundaries, you’re helping to create a balance between what others may reasonably expect and what you are prepared to give. And by staying firmly in charge of your boundaries, you can relax them if it seems appropriate, and reestablish them afterwards without weakening your position.

Work and the rest of your life are neighbors. As with all neighbors, life is calmest and most pleasant if they co-exist with a minimum of friction. That’s why good fences—and open communication about mutual boundaries—are so important.



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Monday, June 25, 2020

How to work less and accomplish more

A simple way to increase your productivity without spending another minute working

There’s an easy way to get more done in the same total time. It doesn’t require fancy software, special organizational tools, or even understanding anything new. All it takes is to slow down and understand the realities of how you spend your time; then apply what you will learn.
Let’s begin with a simple picture of spending 20 minutes working on a single task. It will take you a little while to get into the work, say 5 minutes. That’s for getting things together, settling down, and starting your mind working in the right direction. Before you leave the task, you’ll need maybe another 5 minutes to wind down, put things away, tidy up, and shift your thoughts to what you’ll need to be doing next.

Simple arithmetic shows that, of the 20 minutes total time elapsed, 10 minutes in total was available for productive work, with two sets of 5 minutes allowed for starting up and winding down. That gives a productivity ratio (productive to non-productive time) of exactly 50%. It look like this:


However, if you increase the total period of uninterrupted, focused time on that task to 30 minutes, your productivity ratio immediately increases to 67%, since it takes no more time to start up and wind down. You now have 20 minutes of fully productive time out of 30 minutes total time elapsed, like this:


If you can increase the uninterrupted time to 40 minutes (and the task will take at least that long to complete), your productivity ratio will rise to 75%. With one hour spent like this, productivity rises to 83%. And if you could set aside two hours free from interruption, your productivity ratio would be 92%.

Now see what happens if you have uninterrupted time, as before, but decide to multi-task: that curse of much management thinking. We’ll go back to a period of 30 minutes in total, since that makes a chart that will fit on this page, and assume only two tasks for the sake of simplicity.

Because research has shown that it takes time to swap between tasks—the human brain can’t just jump fully-effective from one to the other—and you still have to allow start up time and wind down at the end, your total effective working time is sharply reduced. You still spent exactly 30 minutes, split between the two tasks, but your productivity ratio has fallen to 33% from the 50% in the first case in this article.


Being interrupted is the very worst thief of productivity, as this chart shows. With no multi-tasking and only two interruptions, 40 minutes being “busy” gives only 10 minutes of truly productive time: a productivity ratio of only 25%. Imagine how low that ratio will fall with more interruptions and a vain attempt at multi=tasking as well. Is it any wonder that people reach the end of a hectic day and cannot see any results for all that effort?


The lesson is simply this. To get the most done in the least time, focus on only one task, remove all possible interruptions, and never multi-task. And try to allocate as long a period to the task as you can, before you have to stop or change to something else. The longer the focused period, the higher the productive ratio of useful time to time spent in starting up, winding down, and the like. That’s why “chunking” time, thought much better than multi-tasking, still isn’t much of a help unless the “chunks” are good, big ones.



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Friday, June 22, 2020

Why changing your self-talk could lower your stress

Cutting your stress level and increasing your pleasure in life and work could require little more than shutting your mental “ears” to phantom voices from your past.

Most of us, at one time or another, hear that depressing whine inside our heads that tells us nothing we do is ever good enough, successful enough, or creative enough to be of any real account; that we’ll never amount to anything and other people are probably sniggering at our feeble efforts anyway. This kind of self-talk is responsible for many people simply giving up and settling for mediocrity. Yet all that your mind is doing is trying to help you avoid future pain by scaring you away from taking risks. It’s time to ignore such tainted advice and forget the past upsets that caused the whining to start in the first place.
People who give advice on personal development or coping with workplace problems usually concentrate on what you might do to make things better. Recently, I came across an article on a British web site that takes a different tack. It looks at how you might need to think differently too: specifically, what beliefs you could have picked up in the past which are now holding you back.

The article is titled: “10 beliefs that could hold you back in life.“

Beliefs are tricky things. We often use the word to describe a fundamental outlook on the world, like a religious, ethical, or philosophical belief. That’s not what this is about, though some of these outlooks come complete with a set of supporting beliefs that apply to many other aspects of life. The type of belief that can raise your stress levels, block your career, and produce misery and frustration is the untested, unchallenged assumption about yourself that goes like this: “I’m a failure. I’ve always been a failure. I’ll never amount to anything. People just laugh at me when I try to do any better. I might as well accept it and give up.”

Understanding the self-talk monster

One useful way of thinking about this type of belief is to recognize it as merely negative self-talk: the monologue that plays continually inside your head, criticizing everything you do and dismissing your results as never good enough to help. Some people label it the Inner Critic, but I think that sounds too much like a theater reviewer or a grouchy panelist on American Idol. It also implies that this voice comes from something separate from you, whereas it’s nothing more than the output from a habitual set of beliefs and assumptions that you’ve picked up at various places and times along life’s path.

Self-talk is based on recollections of hurtful and negative things that others said to you—and that somehow were close enough to your own fears and misgivings to be taken up by your mind and treated as . . . well, not quite true, but near enough to one possible truth to be scary. Now your mind uses them as a means to prevent you from running into more hurt. In its own twisted way, this self-talk is trying to protect you from future pain. That’s why it grabs your attention, just as a reflex to jump back from a snake might do.

The easiest way to understand how to move away from this thought pattern is through an example.

Success has always been desirable, but in today’s world it can seem like the only thing that matters. Yet everyone is fallible, so we all make mistakes and feel bad as a result. In your pain at a poor outcome, you’re very likely to be rather sensitive to negative comments from others. A sly look, a half-suppressed giggle, an overheard comment can all convince you that the mere fact of failing has made you into a failure. That really hurts, so your mind decides to save you from more pain by accepting that label. After all, if you’re a failure, no one will have any future expectations of you, so it will be impossible to fail again.

With this belief in place, appropriately negative self-talk kicks into gear. As soon as you seem to be in danger of trying something difficult, you mind starts warning you off. Of course, you’ll fail again sometime—everyone does, without exception—so the mind takes this as confirmation that trying anything new and risky is simply going to result in more pain. The belief has been reinforced and the self-talk steps up to a higher gear as a result.

A protective response?

There are many, many variations on this “protective” response. You might tell yourself that you’re too stupid to be able to grasp anything tough; or too awkward ever to make friends; or too cowardly to be able to face down some bully in the workplace. Others include: “I’m too old to learn new tricks;” “I’m a nobody, so no one will listen to my ideas;” “It’s too risky to change;” “There’s nothing I can do to change anything;” and “Nobody would believe me if I told them.”

As a protective strategy, all this negative self-talk sucks. It may appear to save you from more hurt, but it does nothing to change the situation you’re already in. In essence, it says: “Stand still right here. I know it hurts—badly—but moving could make it hurt even worse.” So nothing changes for the better, and now you’re as frustrated as all Hell too.

The only answer to negative self-talk is to ignore it. Don’t argue with yourself, because what the self-talk says is, quite truthfully, based on certain facts from your past. But that’s just it; they are past. Over. Gone. Of no further account. No longer relevant.

How to fight back

Failing doesn’t make you a failure, because everyone fails at one time or another. Not instantly understanding something complicated doesn’t make you stupid; even the greatest genius has to find his or her way through hundreds of things not immediately understood on the way to some creative insight. No one is ever too old to learn. All these claims by your self-talk are complete garbage. They’re monsters made from smoke and mirrors to frighten you out of putting yourself at risk. Push ahead and they’ll disappear.

I suspect that the majority of stress people feel in difficult and negative workplace situations is self-inflicted. It’s not that the situation isn’t bad. It is, but listening to continual negative self-talk makes it many times worse and raises stress to unnecessary levels.

Like all techniques to lower stress, ignoring negative self-talk isn’t free or easy. It takes effort and it takes time. But the simple truth is that anyone can do it, and the results are more likely to add to your well-being and happiness than just about anything else. That alone should be sufficient incentive to start. And before your self-talk gets to you . . . no, it isn’t going to be a waste of time or another self-help fad that you’ll soon forget. It’s going to change your life.



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Tuesday, June 12, 2020

Lighten up

Don’t add to your own anxieties by obsessing about work.


Many of the problems that we face we cause ourselves by a combination of overwork, unrealistic expectations, and imaginary anxieties. Sometimes, it seems as if the whole world is losing its sense of humor and proportion in favor of chasing ever less realistic expectations and more magical beliefs about constant progress. Does life offer nothing better than making more money profit in less time by working all hours? Lighten up! That way you get to enjoy all parts of your life, not just one or two.
Most of us take our lives and our work far too seriously. We fret and fume over every setback, lash ourselves with harsh words when we screw up, and set ourselves such ludicrously excessive targets it’s a miracle we aren’t more anxious than we are. We live in tiny, cramped, “me-centered” worlds, where everything that happens is, we believe, directed at us. Problems at work are put there to drive you mad. It rains when you’d planned to spend time outdoors; therefore the rain fell specially to ruin your day. Someone passes you by in the corridor, ignoring your greeting; that means they’re mad at you, or stuck-up, or deliberating snubbing your attempts to be friendly, or plotting against you. Why couldn’t they simply be preoccupied, unobservant, or even slightly deaf? Why does it have to be about you?

Any sane person would surely laugh at such childish egocentrism. But then, even sane people fall into the trap of attributing results to the wrong causes. Most of our successes are due as much to luck as anything else. So are most of our failures. The people around us spend ninety percent of their waking hours thinking about themselves and their own concerns—just as you and I do—but we act as if they spend at least that amount of time worrying about us.

When do people perform best at any task, from sport to nuclear physics? When they’re relaxed, intent on what they’re doing, find pleasure in the activity, and are more or less oblivious of everything else. When they’re having fun. So loosen up, forget what others are thinking about you (mostly, they aren’t concerned with you at all), and enjoy your life. It’s the only one you have (so far as we know).

Try something new

I’m a strong advocate of thinking what most people would do in a given situation, then trying the opposite. In this case, most people will assume their inner doubts and worries reflect reality. So try the opposite. Tell yourself your doubts and fears are simply an over-active imagination and some temporary digestive problems. Instead, make the assumption that your performance can obviously be improved with a little effort, some practice, and fewer emotional tantrums. See if it works. My guess is that it will. Even if it doesn’t—and why wouldn’t it?—you’ll feel better without all that pandering to your fears and anxieties.

Sure, work is important. But so are many other things. When all that you focus on is one aspect of your life—working—all the other aspects are ignored. However much achievement you get from your work, it won’t make up for all that you’ve given up elsewhere. A one-sided life is bound to be limited and narrow. It’s like only ever eating pasta at every meal: neither sufficiently nutritious nor very interesting.

Don’t fall crank up your expectations to stratospheric levels

Don’t fall for the glib talk about being able to do anything, if only you set yourself some sufficiently demanding goals. There’s no magical force of intention and affirmation. Doing this will encourage you to create foolish hopes that you can do anything (no, you cannot) or reach the heights in no time (wrong again, it’ll take many years). Worst of all, thinking like that encourages people to believe in the power of “if only.”

If only you can get that next promotion. If only you can get a raise. If only you can buy a new house or a new car, everything in your life will be wonderful. It’s a fallacy. Nothing is that simple and excessive hopes are very likely to end in equally excessive despair. If you want to have some realistic expectation of success, try taking steady, patient action. It’s not spectacular, nor will it deliver without effort, but you’ll be far less likely to end up disappointed and depressed.

Life has many sides

A good life is doing the best that you can with what you have been given—and that means all of it, not just the parts that you take to your place of work. Grim determination and excessive work may produce material benefits (though even that isn’t assured). They will also destroy any chance of others (and that’s much more certain). Do alcoholics drink for the pleasure it brings them, regardless of the terrible effect is has on the rest of their lives? Surely not. They do it because it has become a compulsion that they cannot fight, and they endure the misery and shame as best they can. Do they have a carefree glass of wine once in a while with good friends?

Workaholics are the same. They do what they do because they are obsessed and gripped by a compulsion they have brought on themselves. Do they enjoy it even? I suspect few do. They simply fear the alternatives so much that they cannot do anything else. They wreck most of their lives to satisfy only a part.

Relax. Lighten up. The world will go on much the same, whether you’re around or not. You might as well enjoy as much of it as you can.



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Tuesday, June 05, 2020

Do you dare to be different?

A “slow” way to make long-term, positive change


People come to blogs like this one seeking to make change. But because most have been conditioned by our “I want it all and I want it now“ society, they are tempted to look for quick and easy ways to become whatever they want to be, or achieve whatever they want to achieve. That’s not a very sensible way to look at things. After all, it’s taken you 20, 30, 40, 50, or more years to get the way you are. What makes you think that you can change that in days or weeks?

If you want to be different, there are three essential steps. Missing out even on one of them will most likely keep you pretty much where you are today. That’s because every time you push hard in the new direction that you want to go, you’ll find that your old habits and ways of thinking push right back. Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. The harder you push and the faster you try to go, the stronger the reaction you’ll encounter. Try these steps instead. The key to making quicker process is a paradox: slow down more.

Slow down

You won’t break out of your old habits by rushing. When people are under pressure, they don’t have energy to try anything new. They’re afraid of risks. They can’t face the idea of stirring up opposition. So they reach for whatever they’ve done before, or for some supposedly “tried-and-true” answer. As a result, they rush headlong down the same old paths into the same old messes. If you refuse to be hurried, surprising ideas and opportunities may present themselves. Think of a garden. You can try to force the plants to grow quickly by pouring on the fertilizer, but it rarely produces much beyond quick, lush growth that soon becomes weak and collapses under the first strong wind or heavy rain. Like many of today’s whiz-kid managers, things look great until tough times come along. Then all the weaknesses show and you can see there are no strong roots to provide long-term survival.

Give yourself time and space. Never be in a hurry. Allow time for thinking, musing, just noodling around in your head with no apparent purpose. Give space in your thinking for ideas you haven’t had yet; allow openings for sniffing out the ideas of others. Haste is the enemy of creativity. Being busy all the time is a great way to stop any possibility of significant change.

Rushing means that you have to tackle all problems head-on. That stirs up the maximum amount of opposition and push-back. So just at the time when you want to make fastest progress, you are making sure that you meet the most problems. By slowing down, you will make fewer waves and cause less upset. You will also be able to creep up on blockages and find ways around them, instead of throwing yourself at them in a frontal attack.

Let go

Let growth happen. New ideas usually arrive unexpectedly. Whenever they do, allow them to be heard. Learn to be alert always for good ideas and opportunities for breakthrough. Be flexible and grab opportunities when they come. Don’t sit back and expect another one to be along in a moment. The universe isn’t like that. The idea or opportunity you just ignored may have been the best one you’ll ever have.

Keep learning and moving. If something works, there’s a natural tendency to stop right there and think you’ve reached Nirvana. We all have a tendency to hang on to our successes and go on repeating them as long as we can. Resist. Say “thanks” and move on. Don’t cling to your achievements. Let them go to make way for more failures and new ideas. The achievements you cling to and repeat are the ones that are most likely to turn into your greatest failures, if you persist in them past their "sell by" date. Plus you’ll have spoiled the recollection of them for all time.

Open up

Shut down the critic inside your head. Ignore it. Tell it to go pester someone else. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore ideas and possibilities that your inner critic tells you are useless. Constant judgment and criticism are enemies of change. Listening to your inner critic will convince you every idea you have, every opportunity that you consider, every change you plan or make are worthless. The truly worthless element is that nagging inner voice. Sometimes the best way to deal with it is just to laugh.

If something is becoming habitual, dump it. Habits are the iron bands that hold you in your current ways of thinking and behaving. No one ever made a breakthrough without letting go of whatever has become habitual and automatic. Breaking those tough old habits won’t be easy. You may have to endure some “cold turkey.” It will be well worth it.

Keep a wide open mind. Real growth often happens well away from where we intend it to. You never know when an idea will hit you, or you’ll meet someone, completely by chance, who will have a profound and wonderful impact on your life. Don’t create your own artificial boundaries by deciding in advance what you will learn from and what you will ignore. Life doesn’t come in neat packages, clearly labeled “learning opportunity.”

Despise dogma. Dogma is the product of closed minds. It’s an idea with a threat attached. If you suffer from dogma, get it out of your life. Let it go. Kick it out. Try thinking the opposite. Treat it like a crazy joke. Do anything you can to get rid of it. It’s the greatest source of all of barriers to change.



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Tuesday, May 15, 2020

A few ideas to help you through a busy day

Sometimes, working life can seem extremely burdensome. Here are a few ideas that might help:
  • Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance anyway. Sitting life out is a sure recipe for frustration and regrets. If you never try, you can never succeed. If you’re too afraid start out badly, you won’t start at all. Many people stick to doing only those things they can do well, so they end up with a restricted, tedious life. Ignore all the macho rubbish about winning. Do what you enjoy doing and you’ll have a great time, even if you don’t make it to the top.

  • When everything is coming your way, you’re probably in the wrong lane. Sometimes we all need a sharp whack over the head to wake us up and alert us to the fact that we’re on a track that doesn’t work for us. The trouble with rushing through life is much the same as the problems you’ll face if you try to rush through an unfamiliar city: it’s extremely easy to take wrong turnings and end up in a mess. Slow down and look where you’re going is good advice for life as well as driving.

  • Some mistakes are just too much fun to make only once. Nearly all creativity springs from setting out to do, or explore, or research one thing and ending up with something totally different and unexpected. Making mistakes is an essential part of all innovation. People who never make mistakes don’t allow themselves to do anything new.

  • Don’t take it all so seriously. My grandfather’s typical response to me, whenever I complained to him about some problem or setback, was: “It’ll all look the same in 10 years time.” As a child, I thought he was just trying to wind me up. Now I agree with him. Mostly, the things we get most worked up about turn out to be of zero importance in the longer-term. Meanwhile, we’ve no attention left over to notice those things that are going to change our futures. Accept that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.

  • Keep away from jerks as much as you can. Jerks contaminate everything around them. I sometimes wonder if their sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others. Trying to change them usually makes you more frustrated . . . and leaves them exactly as they were. If you lend a jerk $50 and never see them again, it was probably worth it. If you find a way to warn yourself when you’re being a jerk, it’s definitely worth it, even if it costs you $200.

  • Politeness costs little and is worth more than you imagine. You never know when you might need help from that person you’re chewing out; or when you discover, in the middle of laying down the law, that you are the one who has screwed up. Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them. If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be silent. And try never to put both feet in your mouth at the same time, because then you won’t have a leg to stand on.

  • The best way to look the people around you is to consider a box of crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty, and some are worn and dull. Many have weird names, and all are different colors. But they all have to fit in the same box.
Life is fascinating and the more people you meet and know, the more colorful the palette becomes. It’s very interesting overall. Now it’s one thing to observe all of this. It’s another entirely when it affects you personally. So at one point in my assessment, I had to ponder if the people around me were part of the problem or part of what was helping me hang in there. I concluded it was definitely both, so this factor was a wash. (Source: www.leavecorporateamerica.com)


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Monday, May 07, 2020

Playing the game of life

Sports players are not the game. You are not your work.

It’s common for writers to compare working life to sport in one way or another. The idea of winners and losers, of team effort as a key to success, of inspirational coaches and great leadership on and off the field of play, all provide good analogies for handling our working lives. But sport and working life are not quite as similar as some people claim. Knowing the key differences can save you from many bad situations.
Working life certainly feels like one of the more competitive kinds of game. There are usually some more-or-less established rules of play, rewards for success, opponents to be avoided or overcome, and friends to be helped. Survival in such a competitive, often ruthless environment, depends on how well you play. . . doesn’t it?

Good team mates in sport and at work can be a great source of support. The “other side” will try to bring you down if they can. You definitely need skill and practice to be good. Coaches can help you do better. Team managers can—and will—impose penalties for slacking or failure. There are winners, losers, persecutors, and victims in the game of working life. Generally speaking, you can’t opt out of the game of work either, since you need money to be able to live, and working is where most people get it.

So far, so good. But knowing the critical ways in which working life differs from any kind of sport or game is essential to be able to succeed—or just to survive, with your sanity and self-respect intact.

Here are some critical differences from the sporting world that jump out for me:
  • Work really isn’t a team sport. You may be part of a team, but most organizations handle rewards and assessments of performance individually. You can’t avoid direct, personal accountability for your actions or decisions. In a sports team, you expect all your team mates to be on your side. In teams at work, this isn’t always a safe assumption.

  • Sport is a short-term activity, limited by the set length of the playing period. After the game, you get to walk away. Staying in a job or a relationship you hate, or that doesn’t work for you, has long-term consequences. Don’t risk them for short-term success or comfort. Playing the wrong sport won’t ruin your life. Working somewhere that isn’t right for who you are—which means consistent with your deepest values—will. It is a seriously bad idea.

  • The sports field, court, or whatever else it is called, is a clearly bounded, well understood situation. Everyone knows what’s there, what counts and what doesn’t, and where you can play to best effect. The working environment is messy, uncertain, ill-defined, and constantly changing. Yet your survival depends still on how well you understand it and take appropriate action. Sometimes, it’s more like a battlefield than a baseball diamond or a tennis court. Don’t assume others will play by the rules—or that there even are any.

  • Winners in sport almost always win because of better preparation. It may not seem like that to the losers, because winners sometimes seem to carry off winning performances with ease, but winning is rarely an accident. The best players will lose sometimes. The worst lose all the time. In the business world, it’s tempting to assume that the same is true. It isn’t. Chance plays a far greater role. Don’t get puffed up and assume one or two successes mean that you’re brilliant. Luck is sometimes on your side. Too many people ignore the part it plays. Stay humble and you’ll avoid falling from that pedestal you put yourself on.

  • Winners in sport and work learn from past mistakes. They never stop learning and practicing. Do you imagine that Tiger Woods believes he can walk onto a golf course and win without hours and hours of focused practice beforehand? But at least he knows what the game is. To win in the workplace means understanding the politics well enough to know what is really wanted from you. Bosses often don’t—or won’t—tell you.
There are other differences too, but these will do for a start. Sporting analogies can be useful in illustrating ideas about work, but don’t make the mistake of following them too far. Sport and work can both be dirty businesses, but you can always walk away from a sport if it gets too much for you. Walking away from the world of work isn’t so easy. Even people who decide to get out of the corporate rat race usually find that the world of freelancing or self-employment isn’t that much easier.

So what can you do?
  • Stay wake and alert. Don’t be lead astray by simplistic recipes for success.

  • Learn, practice, re-learn, re-practice . . . then do some more of both. Never stop learning and practicing. Nothing will ruin you faster.

  • Don’t be naive, but don’t lose heart either. Sure there are some bad things out there, but there are many good ones too.

  • Most of all, stay calm and detached from the emotional turmoil around you. Neither sport nor working life are as serious as their devotees believe.
You are not your work. It doesn’t define you. Whatever happens, you are still a unique individual with an intrinsic worth far greater than you can imagine. The universe brought you into being and assigned you a place within it. Don’t let mere humans—even self-appointed umpires of our corporate world—persuade you differently.



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Wednesday, May 02, 2020

Whose life is it anyway?

Giving in to dogma will cripple your identity


Thanks to Ririan Project, via Leon Ho at Lifehack.org, for pointing me to this quote from Steve Jobs of Apple:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
There are many subtle ways that we are trapped into following someone else’s opinion of how our life should be lived. It’s not just the obvious pressures, like the norms of society, the demands of employers, or even the laws where we live. It’s the softer and more insidious urgings like these:
  • Wanting to be liked. Most people want to be liked by those they come into contact with. To be willing to be disliked, even by a few, is a price rather few people are willing to pay for staying true to their ideals. But it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s really true that being liked always demands quite so much conformity. Some people will dislike you whatever you do, and being seen as a doormat isn’t much of a way to show others your true value. It’s probably correct that too much conformity is as much a cause of dislike as too much rebellion.

  • Wanting to fit in. There is so much pressure to fit in, to be a good team player, to accept the will of the majority (or, more often, the tiny minority in power). Just recognize what is causing you to yield to this pressure. It’s fear. The fear of being excluded, laughed at, challenged, or even attacked. People who work really hard to fit in are extremely fearful and anxious. It seems as if being part of the team, never rocking any boats, should produce a quiet life. In reality, it causes constant anxiety about avoiding what others might interpret as either being too independent or getting above yourself.

  • Wanting to avoid blame. There are many people who are so afraid of being blamed for anything that they automatically follow every possible rule and always try to avoid doing anything that causes them to stand out. For them, “I was only following orders” is the best excuse possible, should any criticism be in the offing. Does it work? Not really. Instead of being blamed for whatever mistake was made, they usually end up being blamed for blindly doing what they were told: not a person who tried and got it wrong, but a person without any initiative—not even enough to recognize that what they were told to do was likely a mistake.

  • Wanting to appear respectable. In our society, those who question the norms are usually demonized as agitators, lefties, and people with dubious morals—or no morals at all. Creative people are alternately idolized (if they are successful) or laughed at as freaks and losers. Never mind the fact that just about everything the rest of us enjoy in life, from security to iPods, is due to the efforts of just such creative types. Only fear makes respectability look attractive. The more typical marks of respectability are far less pleasant: bigotry, small-mindedness, hypocrisy, and cant.

  • Wanting to please. This is the most insidious trap of all. It feels good to please people. It gives you a glow. Small children want to please their parents. Lovers want to please one another. What could be wrong in that? Only that the cost of pleasing others all the time is going to be the crippling or loss of your own identity. And that, over the years, hidden resentment from doing this can build up to the point where it destroys the very relationships you have tried so hard to preserve.

If you want to live in a better world—and who wouldn’t, seeing the mess this one is in—there’s no alternative but to play your part in changing things. You cannot leave it to others. That’s neither honest nor practical. As another quote from Steve Jobs puts it;
We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?




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Monday, April 30, 2020

What does it mean?

Today’s management approaches are all abstractions and no humanity

Hamburger Management has a spreadsheet in place of a heart and a profit-and-loss statement for a soul. Is it any wonder that is has to resort to violent, artificial means of motivating people? Giving huge rewards to a chosen few and driving the rest by threats and intimidation isn’t motivation. Nor is using smart sound-bites and slogans. There is only one way to fill people with joy in what they do and bring out their highest abilities—and that way hasn’t changed since the human race began.
Motivation is the subject of more articles and training courses than almost any other management “technique.” Yet I’m constantly appalled at the nonsense that I see written and handed out on the topic. Mostly, Hamburger Management ignores the purely human aspects of the enterprise, preferring to focus on spreadsheets, ratios, and results. It does notice motivation however—mostly, I suspect, because that seems to offer a way of getting people to work harder for the same pay or even less. Hamburger Managers are expected to motivate their people,
often by standing behind them wielding a big stick. If that doesn’t work, they stand just ahead, waving a large carrot and shifting it just out of reach each time their people get close enough to feel they might be able to get their hands on it.


This kind of artificial, carrot-and-stick motivation is a potent cause of workplace stress. It’s as if you’re in a car driven by someone who accelerates madly whenever there’s some space ahead, then stands on the brakes when they seem about to throw you headlong into something. It doesn’t make for a relaxing ride, and it’s hell on the brakes and the tires. Yet that’s the atmosphere in many organizations today: a scary ride mixing being forced to drive way too fast with suddenly being dragged to a halt when the organization decides it can’t afford what it will take to make you keep up the constant acceleration.

What all this sham motivation misses is what truly makes people love their jobs.

Meaning

People only care deeply about what they do when it gives their lives meaning and purpose. They don’t really work for money, they work for what money means to them: security, good food, pleasure, status, fun, relaxation. They don’t respond to incentives, they respond to what the incentives mean in their lives: praise, recognition, self-worth, and a sense of value from achievement. Even punishment and threats only work when they truly mean humiliation, loss, or sharp, personal pain.

Managers who ignore this haven’t a hope of producing anything but the minimum effort.

Part of something wonderful

True motivation means giving people something real to care about—lasting values like truth, friendship, honor, loyalty, justice, love, and self-worth. It means letting them see why they’re doing what they’re asked to do, and how it will contribute to something they find worthwhile. Of course people want personal success and rewards. But few want these things at any price. Instead, the vast majority of folk give the highest value to the feeling that they are part of something wonderful. They want to believe that the world (or, at least, the part of it that they inhabit) cares about and values what they do.

They also want to feel that the organization cares about them. Slowing down gives leaders time to explain the meaning of the work, to show its value. It also lets them that show that they care about their people.

Blood, sweat, and tears

When someone truly cares about us, we almost automatically start to care about them. All the great leaders of the past have known this. Napoleon talked personally with his soldiers and handed out medals to show them that he cared about their hurts and valued their bravery. They responded by fighting for him until the last. Winston Churchill walked in the bombed ruins of London and spoke the words the defiant people would have spoken if they’d had his eloquence. He didn’t talk about abstractions, like overall war plans or strategic objectives. He spoke about real things: blood, sweat and tears. He embodied the values the nation was fighting for. He gave meaning to people’s efforts to stay alive and fight back.

Hand people instructions and they’ll do no more than you tell them to—and maybe not even that. Give them rules and they’ll find ways around them. Talk about financial ratios, profitability, and return on investment, and their eyes will glaze over. But give people something to believe in—a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do— and show them that they matter, and they’ll produce efforts and results you wouldn’t have imagined possible.



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Monday, April 23, 2020

The problem of ambition

Is being strongly ambitious a benefit? Is searching for excellence always worth it? Whatever happened to “good enough?”

The Ancient Greeks had a word for the behavior shown by over-ambitious people who went too far in striving for excellence. The word was hubris. Not in our modern use of the word as meaning little more than being somewhat too big for your boots, but in its original sense of causing your own destruction by drawing down the wrath of the gods. The writers of Greek tragedies focused on showing the effects of hubris on previously successful people: men like Oediipus the king, who blinded himself, and King Agamemnon, murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover. In our modern world, we have forgotten that the pursuit of excellence can sometimes go too far: that crossing certain boundaries turns success into a nightmare of deceit, stress, and guilt. Maybe we ought to recover this idea, for the sake of our sanity.
This is something that it’s worth thinking about; a saying I came across somewhere (I can’t recall quite where), but which has stuck with me because it seems to express something profound about the way that most of us live our lives:
80 percent of the problems in your life come from wanting what you don’t have. The other 20 percent come from getting it.
Our consumer society cannot exist without a large majority of people constantly wanting what they don’t (yet) have. Advertisers and marketers spend their lives promoting craving in potential customers: not just a craving for particular products, but a generalized sense that you are never complete. There is always something new to long for—and seek to find some way of possessing. Always something more to pull you on into greater and greater hubris.

People in the past shared the belief that mankind began in an ideal state (the Golden Age or the Garden of Eden) and, since then, has descended in a more and more debased and troubled existence. Nearly everyone nowadays believes the exact opposite. Our superficial assumption of progress convinces us that each year will be better, more prosperous, more plentiful than the last. Success can never be too great. Like the profits in commercial endeavors, the only acceptable direction is upwards—and the faster the better. But is it true?

Our belief in unending progress is just as much a cultural myth as those ancient beliefs in a Garden of Eden and a subsequent fall from grace. Before we dismiss these stories as simple pessimism, consider this: they actually offer us a clear-sighted view that going too far typically extracts a terrible price in mental health; one that quickly destroys all the success that went before. With constant ambition and desire for more comes constant anxiety. What if your progress falters? What if others do better than you? What if you suffer some significant failure that thrusts you backwards? What if the only way to go on winning seems to be to lie, cheat, and use any means to destroy rivals? What if failure, however small, flips you into depression, or even a psychotic episode?

It’s no coincidence that the highest achievers are typically the most anxious and stressed. Those who have gained most have most to lose. Stress hits hardest at those who are most productive and successful. They live with a constant sense of fear. They worry whether their progress is good enough. Whatever they earn, whatever level in the hierarchy they reach, however many goods they buy, there is always more, just out of reach. They cannot relax because they never reach the point where they feel relaxation can be justified. They have lost the notion of “good enough;” of reaching a state where what they have is sufficient, so that they can now spend time enjoying it. They never recognize the point when productivity becomes less important than pleasure.

To find pleasure in your life, you first need to come to terms with the fact that constant economic striving and enjoying yourself are rarely fully compatible. Making time and space for pleasure usually demands stepping back from all that striving to be the leading rat in the race. “Good enough” can be better than excellence, if the price of achieving excellence is continual overwork with a thick topping of anxiety and guilt.

Even for businesses, the cost of being the market leader can become too high to tolerate. A good business that provides sufficient wealth for those whom it employs, some reasonable stability for the future, and a lifestyle that has a good balance of pleasure as well as productivity, used to be the ideal. Only in recent times has that image been replaced with that of an organization that is never satisfied with anything; and which automatically responds to meeting any goal by setting another, more demanding than before.

We need to see this for what it is: not some profound and inescapable truth, but just another cultural norm that will, one day in the future, seem just as strange as the wearing of powdered wigs and knee-breeches seems to us today. For most of us, “good enough” is in truth very good indeed. Pushing too far beyond it often produces more stress than is compatible with a good life. The problem of ambition has always been the same: knowing when to stop.



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Thursday, April 19, 2020

Getting it wrong to get it right

Organizations (and people) who are afraid to make mistakes can neither live nor learn effectively.

Yesterday, I wrote about Professor Russell Ackoff’s interview with Peter Day, reported here on the BBC web site. In the second part of that interview, the topic shifts away from business schools towards another key question: how can you be successful if you ignore, or hide, or deny your mistakes? Aren’t mistakes the basis of virtually all learning? If you don’t learn from them, who or what will be able to teach you anything?
It sometimes seems that our society is obsessed with prying into the mistakes of others, but that isn’t really true. The media have a prurient fascination with the mistakes of the rich and famous—especially any that involve sex—and there are many who take an equally perverse joy in proving to themselves that those whom they secretly envy are, in reality, no better then they are. Yet the greatest effort goes into hiding mistakes, or denying their very existence, as if making a mistake were the most shameful of social diseases. Politicians, business leaders, the rich and famous, all spend lavishly on covering up their mistakes.

Our society's petty and mean-minded ways of dealing with mistakes, focused as they are on pointing to others’ misdemeanors, while carefully concealing or ignoring your own, are so common that we scarcely notice any more. Sadly, this is also the way that mistakes are treated in most organizations: as something to be ashamed of, to punish, and to conceal or deny whenever possible. Listen to Professor Ackoff:
You never learn by doing something right, because you already know how to do it. The only opportunity for learning is to identify mistakes and correct them. If you are in an organization which says that mistakes are a bad thing, learning is suppressed. So you either try to avoid mistakes, or if you make them, you shift blame to someone else.
The simplest way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing; or at least to do nothing new or different from the conventional. If you resolutely stick to whatever is the most obvious, the most orthodox, and the most common, you at least have the chance of deflecting criticism by the time-worn practice of pointing to everyone else and saying that they did the same. As Ackoff points out, organizations have elaborate measurement and recording systems to note even the slightest sins of commission—doing what you ought not to have done—and none at all to deal with the worst kind of mistakes in business: not doing what you should have.
The worst kind of mistake is not being wrong, but something you did not do that you should have done. Errors of omission are responsible for failures and bankruptcy.
I think that he is right about that. Following the herd and sticking to the conventional and orthodox makes you mediocre and pedestrian, but it takes a long time to bring your business to its knees. Missing opportunities, ignoring mistakes, staying complacent in the face of change, and suppressing new ideas will all ruin you faster and much more effectively.

Yet that is what so many organizations are doing. They’re so hell-bent on imitating others and avoiding risks that they take the biggest risk of all: ignoring reality.

Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other.

Deciding not to do something is just as much a decision as its opposite. Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other. In reality, both represent an equally significant response to events. If one is punishable, so should the other be. Of course, honest mistakes—those made despite every effort to get it right—are no more worthy of being punished than getting wet when it rains. Life is unpredictable and often cruel. Only the dead are free from further errors.

To learn fully from your own mistakes, you should make as careful a note of when you decided not to act as when you did. Refusing to act is still your choice, and you should trace its consequences carefully. If you don't, at least half the lessons life can teach you will never be recognized. Sometimes the greatest gamble of all is to refuse to throw the dice.

In my own experience, as you get older, you spend far more time aware of all the opportunities that you didn’t take, and the things that you didn’t do—and now wish that you had—than regretting the mistaken actions or choices that you did go through with. Though you know that many of those missed opportunities would not have worked out—that you would have suffered hurts you avoided and much pain and embarrassment—you become aware of what you have missed that was far more valuable: experiences that would have taught you lessons that now you can never learn.

Getting it right, in work or life, nearly always involves a great deal of getting it wrong as well. Success depends critically on how you face up to failure, take the lesson it offers, and start again. Opportunities missed are usually gone for ever. The road not taken never shows up on the map again.

That’s why rushing through life, obsessed with conventional success and fixated purely on material gain, may produce riches and fame, but very often misses out on happiness and contentment. The New Testament of Christians asks: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his soul?” You only have one trip around the sun. Use it well, or lose the chance of living and learning forever.



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Friday, March 23, 2020

Real courage is knowing when to let go

Why “hanging tough” is typically a sign of leadership cowardice.

Letting go of the past—even the most successful and joyful parts—is an essential discipline for everyone. Too many of us cling to burdens that no longer fulfill any useful purpose, lacking the courage to face reality and give lost hopes and failed ideas a decent burial. Stress, pain, and frustration are all we get in exchange for such misplaced loyalty. Buddhists believe that most of the troubles people face are caused by “attachment”—by our habit of clinging to ideas and situations that are long past their “use by” date. I believe there is a good deal of truth in this viewpoint, especially in the workplace.
Many organizations, and their leaders, cling to products that should have been replaced, working practices that no longer work, management techniques that are long past whatever usefulness they ever had, and projects that should have been abandoned as unworkable months or years ago. People are loathe to give up what’s familiar, even when it causes them more problems than profit. They also invest so much of their self-esteem and credibility in some of these outdated activities that giving them up feels like having a limb amputated.

And while we all know that those in positions of authority—and that includes ourselves—tell lies when it seems useful to do so, the lies and half-truths that we tell ourselves always result in the most pain and frustration. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that it will all come right, if only we persist just a little longer, when the reality is that all chance of success disappeared long ago.

In today’s macho cultures—especially Hamburger Management—being a “quitter” is almost the ultimate term of abuse. It isn’t only in the political arena that the “tough guys” constantly claim that their critics are going to “cut and run.” For macho management types, almost any kind of desperate clinging to failing ideas can be supported for years by claiming that the alternative involves weakness and cowardice.

In reality, of course, letting go of something often demands extraordinary courage, especially if it was once a much-loved and extremely successful operation. Sadly, nothing in this world lasts for ever and even the most successful ideas eventually run out of steam. That’s why we all need to take time out on a regular basis to question our preconceptions and review our lives for the sins of clinging to something we ought to let pass.

When is it time to summon the courage to let go?
  • When something that used to be important or successful is showing signs that its power is waning. The technique you mastered way back then that has served you so well, but now seems to have lost its edge. The approach on which you built your reputation, but which is being replaced by fresh ideas or new technologies. The beliefs that have sustained you, but whose truth you are now unsure about.

  • When a hope, a dream, or an expectation isn’t going to happen. We all suffer from selective vision, clinging to our dreams and hopes long after it’s become plain that they aren’t going to come to fruition. Few things cause more frustration, misery, and stress to ourselves and those around us than hanging on to some increasingly forlorn belief. It’s like carrying a corpse around, pretending life will somehow return.

  • When a plan or a project has clearly failed. Giving up is an extremely tough thing to do, especially when you know that some of your credibility is going to be lost, along with time, cash, and the organization’s expectations. It takes real courage to face reality and admit to being mistaken. Yet the alternative—to hang on until your rigid fingers are pried away from the levels of command—is still worse. Everyone else knows it has failed. Would you rather have their forgiveness for making a mistake; or their pity for being too stubborn and blind to admit to it?

  • When enough is enough. Clinging to what is no longer useful causes pain to others as well as to you. You may be silly enough to accept that pain, but that does not give you the right to continue inflicting pain on others: you subordinates, your colleagues, your friends, or your family. Making others hurt to avoid admitting to your own folly is the ultimate in selfishness.
From time to time, we all need the courage and the wisdom to let go and face the reality that what we once found indispensable is no longer useful. Continually putting off that time is a true sign of cowardice. Until you admit the truth, you cannot learn new ways to replace what now needs to be laid to rest.

Old, outworn ideas; past achievements not firmly past; old grudges and half-forgotten wrongs; failed policies and projects that never quite made it; let them all go. Lighten your burden in this world. It’s tough enough going without weighing yourself down with all manner of useless baggage from the past.



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Thursday, March 22, 2020

Does it have to taste bad to do you good?

Many of the choices people make about work are based on that set of conventional values collectively termed the Puritan Work Ethic. I have explained before that I believe this group of beliefs is outmoded and counterproductive. Yet, even if you accept the Work Ethic at face value, it contains some notable oddities, especially the idea that effort confers value by itself.

According to popular belief, derived from the Puritan Work Ethic, a major part of the value of any action comes from the effort it takes to achieve. Something that demands a long period of extreme effort and determination will be worth more than whatever comes to you easily.

This may—possibly—have contained some small truth when applied to activities that required either the skill that comes from years and years of experience or manual dexterity. However, it makes little sense when you apply it to knowledge work.

If knowledge-work activity takes great effort and determination, that must mean one or more of these descriptions apply:
  • It’s something you have never done before, you are not competent in doing it, or you lack the know-how and training required. Basically, you are out of your depth.
  • It’s something you haven’t done for a long time, so you are extremely rusty. Once again, this means you are not competent.
  • You hate doing whatever it is, you have no interest or aptitude for it, and you are only involved because you have no choice. As a result, you are likely to be unmotivated as well as incompetent.
We recognize expertise in large part by the way the expert makes extremely difficult actions seem effortless. Where we would huff and puff, and grit our teeth, and produce a pitiful result, the expert smiles and brings off a brilliant outcome without visible effort. All that skill and expertise is revealed by the ease with which the action is done.

The major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it.

Part of the nonsense that what is hard work is also valuable is based on the childish view that to be good for you “medicine” must taste bad. You can almost hear the worried parent saying: “I know that it tastes awful, but it’ll do you good, I promise.” But the major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it. Many worthwhile things take a good deal of effort to learn, but that doesn’t mean they should also be very laborious to do once you have learned how to do them.

It’s worth the effort to learn something well precisely because it makes doing it easy, once you have learned enough. If you follow the reasoning of the Puritan Work Ethic, learning to do something easily devalues it. To stay with high-value work, you would always need to be doing whatever you do with least ease: things you are poor at and do badly.

Part of the perverted thinking behind the Puritan Work Ethic is the idea that “mortifying the flesh” is a good thing: that the joys and pleasures of this world are temptations that take your mind away from heavenly things. If you think this way, you almost have to see ease and pleasure as somehow evil. I believe that very few people truly believe that this is the case, but some of this thinking still hangs around in the opposite belief that what costs you pain is somehow better. Americans, in particular, suffer from a residue of puritanical values from their past, which is probably why they see Europeans as likely to be lazy and prone to a lack of serious morals.

What is work? Surely it’s mostly what people do to earn a living. There’s no logical reason why it should be hard work. Work that hurts is in no way better than work that is fun. The English language contains many words with multiple meanings and “work” is one of them. In the sense of gainful employment, there’s every reason to aim for a state where work contains little or no “work” (in the sense of effort and striving) at all.

Don’t fall for the nonsense of the Puritan Work Ethic. Those puritans believed everything about this world was evil, especially if it happened to be fun and enjoyable. If something is hard work for you, even after you’ve spent time practicing and learning how to do it properly, give it up. Focus on doing what comes easily. You’ll get better results and have a happier life.



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Tuesday, March 20, 2020

Myths of management

Is competition always so beneficial?

Business uses ideas from many sources, but the military and the sports arena are the origin of more business ideas (and downright myths) than anywhere else. Perhaps that’s because of the domination of business by men. The military was, until very recently, a male preserve; and sport has long been a staple of male conversation, since the days when it consisted of kicking an enemy’s head around a muddy field. Sport has influenced business as much as business has now come to dominate sport.

Competition is essential to sport, whether you play against your own past achievements or another team or individual. Take away the element of competition and football becomes group of hooligans in helmets knocking one another over. Golf becomes the stupidest way imaginable for putting a small, white ball into a series of holes in the grass—and why would you want to do that anyway? And tennis . . . why should one person hit a ball to one another over a piece of netting, only to have the other person hit the ball back again?

The assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Business is not a game—though many people treat it as such. It has a purpose, and supposedly that purpose is beneficial. Competition between products or corporations may be essential to prevent monopolistic exploitation in a free market (if only because we accept that organizations will not restrain themselves otherwise), but the assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but outside the sporting arena, most people find competition increases their anxiety and level of fear. Do people do their best work when they’re anxious, frightened and under stress? Do you? If you win, all is well, and you may forget the terror you felt. If you lose…well, who cares about losers? I’m not saying competition always has such negative effects, but it’s very far from being a universal spur to healthful actions.

There’s the problem. For every winner, there must be one or more losers. And before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience? Or do many “losers” resolve never to repeat such humiliation again? Doesn’t it also cause alienation and wreck people’s self-esteem? And doesn’t it sometimes drive people to seek to win by any means available, including deceit and violence?

Before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience?

Of course, competition in sport has another purpose: it’s what spectators come to watch. The best game, from the spectators’ point of view, is a close-run match where neither player or team seems capable of beating the other. But if winning is all that counts, as we’re often told in the business world, the best game from the player’s point of view will always be the one where he or she dominates to such an extent the opponent never has a chance. Win fast with little or no effort. But who would go to watch? And without spectators and TV audiences, there would be no money. That’s why the organizers try so hard to produce matches which hang in the balance, even, in the case of some “sports,” to the extent of choreographing events and sending players into the game with suitable scripts.

Business isn’t—yet—a spectator sport (though Donald Trump and his imitators seems to be trying to make it one), so ease of winning ought not to be a problem. If you want to be a winner, pick on others who have no chance against you. And that’s exactly what happens, only it’s usually done by competing against superficially able “opponents” whose ability has been hamstrung in some way—because you’re the boss; because you’ve made it clear you’ll destroy their careers if they make you look bad; or because you’ve rigged the game against them in advance.

There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing.

Making people compete against one another for rewards, attention and praise has become traditional, but it’s not the only way to set standards or share prizes. There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing. When showing your skill and sportsmanship counted for more than coming out on top. Thanks to the media’s obsession with turning everything into a no-holds-barred wrestling match, politicians have become die-hard competitors, judges preside over trials that closely resemble gladiatorial contests, and even literary awards are tricked out in the paraphernalia of competition, complete with squabbling judges and post-game slanging matches. And as for the Oscars . . .

Competition spurs some people to higher effort. It convinces many others it’s not worth trying and being humiliated. It causes some to seek to win by honorable means, and others to cheat. So who rises to the top? The able and honorable competitor, or the cheater? Can you tell—until it’s too late? Does the rash of top executive prosecutions tell you anything about the results of a “winner takes all” outlook?

Myths are not lies. They contain an element of truth, somewhere. They only become dangerous when they’re treated as self-evident. Competition in business is far from being the best way to encourage individual or team excellence, let alone the only one.



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Monday, March 19, 2020

What causes stress?

It’s not always what you that think it is



It’s very easy to concentrate only on the visible and external causes of stress: things like long hours, bullying bosses, crazy profit expectations, and continually shortening deadlines. Are these causes of stress? Yes, indeed. Do they lead to serious problems? Yes again . . . but not in every case. One of the criticisms thrown against the whole “work/life balance” movement is that it over-dramatizes these aspects of life, sees universal problems where none exist, and ignores people who handle such stressors with ease. The critics have a point, but not the whole point. Maybe the answer to what really causes stress lies within us.

According to the critics of those who draw attention to stress at work, hard work never killed (or significantly harmed) anyone. Long hours are simply a fact of modern life, like idiot TV programs and fast food. Just as eating fast food on occasion does no harm, so working long hours isn’t harmful either, unless taken to excess (I wonder what would count as “excessive” long hours. Maybe 20 hours per day, 7 days a week?). All these causes of workplace stress—long hours, bullying bosses, crazy profit expectations, and continually shortening deadlines —are dismissed either as problems capable of an easy solution or the whining of the chronically lazy.

I’ve deliberately stated these objections in extreme terms, since that is how they are often delivered. But when you cut out the inflated rhetoric, it must be admitted that the critics have a point. Most of us know of people who work very long hours, do so quite voluntarily, and thrive on it. There are folk for whom a terrifying deadline is a source of motivation, rather than dread. And there are assuredly people who set themselves seemingly impossible goals and expectations, yet still meet them—and experience excitement and joy as result, not exhaustion.

Is the answer to stress to find, and work on, only what you truly love? Well, maybe.

You cannot simply dismiss the evidence that there are more than a few people who see hard work as pleasant, and not at all stressful. Is this just another case of: “different strokes for different folks?” Is it simply a reflection of the difference—as so often claimed—between those who are doing what they love, and the rest of us who do what we must? Is the answer to stress to find, and work on, only what you truly love? Well, maybe. But my own experience suggests that only a small proportion of people even know what work thay might they truly love doing; and an even smaller proportion find themselves able to make this a source of sufficient income to serve as their sole, or even primary, employment.

Maybe the problem is that we so often take a rather simplified view of the phenomenon of workplace stress.

There are, it’s quite clear, externally-applied stressors: compulsory long hours, insufficient resources, fear of job loss. These do cause stress in the majority of people, though a minority find them acceptable, or even stimulating. This parallels human activities like climbing mountains or parachuting. the majority of people find the very idea of frightening or negative, but a dedicated few enjoy them thoroughly. Still, I know of no organization that makes jumping out of an airplane and dangling on a piece of nylon fabric compulsory for everyone, not even the parachute corps. So pointing out that some people seem to enjoy what others find stressful is no argument in favor of imposing it on everyone.

There’s also good evidence to suggest that most stress is produced in the mind, both by our reactions to events and by our attitudes and thoughts. I happen to be afraid of heights. I know my response is illogical, but I cannot stop myself from becoming physically sick and terrified if I stand near the edge of a precipice. The stress that I suffer is caused by my mind. I know this, because people standing around me are quite at ease, and even lean over the edge to get a better view.

Still, even this understanding is of little use if it merely applies to certain individuals. Are there general mental causes of stress: ones that apply to the majority of people? I believe that there are, and that they contribute at least as much to today’s epidemic of workplace stress as the far more often blamed working conditions and crass bosses.

Here are some that I think are common enough to qualify as typical:
  • The obsession with being in control. I’ve noted several times in these postings that belief in your ability to control anything absolutely is a dangerous and stressful illusion. Yet many go much further. They seek to control almost every aspect of their work, even their life: future results, the actions of those around them, external events, even the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes of customers and clients. Such folly is doomed to constant failure. That would be stressful enough. But what makes it still worse is that such people—and not a few organizations—don’t just believe this kind of direct control is possible; they demand it. For them, it is the mark of success, as compulsory as turning up to work, or following legitimate orders from the hierarchy. It’s bad enough to fail all the time. How much more stressful is it to feel that succeeding in this obsessive control is both possible and required? This production of permanent failure, frustration, and guilt is a major cause of stress, especially in otherwise successful people.


  • Linking satisfaction to specific, external circumstances. This is so common that most people don’t even recognize it as abnormal. It expresses itself in statements like: “I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I’ve [fill in the blank].” Or “My goal is to have [this status, these possessions, this level of income, this lifestyle]. Then I will be happy.” Aside from the fact that no one can control the future, so even the hardest work may fail to produce the desired “goodies” due to events completely outside your control, most people have no proof at all that what they claim they are working for will make them happy, even if they get it. Most of these desires aren’t even based on thorough, personal consideration of the likely costs, benefits, and alternatives. They’re picked up from the media, friends, the fashion of the moment, and the continual activities of marketers and advertisers, whose job depends on maintaining everyone in a constant state of unfulfilled desire for still more things, however much they've alreadty got.


  • The illusion of continual growth. Very few things grow without limits. Nature doesn’t contain any creatures that live for ever, grow to infinite size, continually learn to run faster the longer they live, or possess abilities that have no limits. Even the human capacity to learn, while “infinite” in most individual cases only because we typically use so little of it, has limits somewhere. Nevertheless, many people act on the assumption that as soon as you have something (wealth, power, status, possessions), the only natural course is to seek still more. Once again, marketing and advertising encourage this idiocy. If they didn’t, they would have to face the reality that even people with three cars cannot drive more than one at a time, and someone with a lust for buying shoes equal to Imelda Marcos's still has only two feet. Never being satisfied is bound to produce stress over time, since you will be so tormented by the imagination of all that you still don’t possess that you will never enjoy what you have.


  • Egotism, pure and simple. Very small children are supreme egotists. As their brains develop enough to form a conception of themselves as separate from others, they become obsessed with being the center of attention at all times. Happily, for most this is simply a phase of development, like sucking their thumb or repeating the same nonsense syllables for hours with no sign of being tired of them. It seems, though, that some people never grow out of the egotistical phase. Even as adults, they behave as if the whole universe revolves around them. Many of them become senior executives.

    We are back to the stressful effects of seeking the impossible. The more egotistical your thoughts, the more every setback, problem, difficulty, harsh word, or simple piece of bad luck will feel as if it is personally directed at you. Where others may shrug and accept that things just didn’t turn out as they hoped, you will be driven to seek out why you were treated so badly by events, or by others. Simple upset becomes translated into personal insult. A moment’s frustration becomes hours of churning anger at the “unfairness” of it all.

Stress has many causes and demands an equal number of solutions. We should try to create more civilized workplaces and limit the external causes of stress wherever we can. But this will never be sufficient on its own. The internal causes of stress—obsession with control, seeking satisfaction in externals, the illusion of “necessary” growth, and personal egotism—must also be conquered before stress at work can become limited to obviously pathological cases.

Stress soars like a multi-stage rocket, with each stage (working conditions, bullying bosses, greedy organizations, and personal obsessions) driving it higher and higher. Until all the stages have been tackled, you will never be able to keep it down to earth.



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Wednesday, March 14, 2020

What makes a company the best to work for . . . four times in a row?

There’s no problem, it seems, combining a great workplace with great profits



The Times of London announced recently that W. L. Gore, makers of Gore-Tex fabric, has come top in “The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For” survey for the fourth year running [link] . The paper describes this contest as “the UK’s toughest survey to measure staff satisfaction.” The survey, submitted by almost 150,000 employees, covered eight key areas:
  1. Leadership by the head of the company and senior managers.

  2. Stress, pressure, and the balance between work and home duties.

  3. The immediate boss and other day-to-day managers.

  4. Immediate colleagues.

  5. Pay and benefits.

  6. How much companies are thought to put back into society, and the local community in particular.

  7. The company itself, as opposed to the people.

  8. Whether staff feel challenged by their job, their skills are being used, and the scope for advancement.

Here’s what a spokesperson for W. L. Gore said on winning again:
Workplace engagement, we strongly believe, is a competitive advantage. Competitive advantage when used correctly not only creates income and profit, which we are great at doing, but also comes with a responsibility to society as a whole. We are successful because of the ability of our associates to grow, explore and learn in an environment of freedom and trust.
It would be hard to find a simpler statement of the principles and benefits of Slow Leadership: a responsible organization that values trust, focuses on its wider role in the community, not just profit, and sees the creativity, growth, and freedom of its people as an important part of its corporate role. Gore remains the best company to work for because it gives its employees better personal growth, a more attractive working culture, and a stronger sense of belonging than any other company in the contest.

Interestingly, overall satisfaction with all of the companies in the survey rose this year. People think that they are well paid and have strong opportunities for personal growth. As usual, small companies do better then large ones, probably reflecting the greater flexibility small employers can offer.

However, there is one dark spot on the horizon. In the category of “employee well-being” (stress, pressure, and the balance between work and home duties), there was a significant fall in scores, which the survey authors see as “a reflection of the consistently poor scores recorded for workplace stress and feeling exhausted by the end of the day in the bigger companies in particular.”

Surveys like this give the lie to the argument by many macho organizational leaders and politicians that ideas like work/life balance and avoiding excessive stress are merely fancy ideals proposed by liberals and do-gooders. Gore makes high profits and is the leader in its field, yet manages at the same time to provide a civilized and attractive working environment and be a good citizen in its community. If they can do it—and do it better than anyone else in Britain for four years in a row—what is stopping everyone else?



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Wednesday, February 28, 2020

The Critical Importance of NOT Doing Things

Why a “don’t do” list is vital to good working habits

Most gurus and teachers spend their time telling people what to do. But if you’re already over-stretched and facing an unending future of still more pressure, that’s not likely to appear palatable. Here’s how NOT doing things can help even the most stressed person find ways to improve their working life.
I’m always a little uneasy about all the websites and blots devoted to Getting Things Done and avoiding procrastination. I see the attraction—especially to those who feel frustrated and harassed—but it seems to me that getting things done is less than half of the problem. The greatest part is stopping yourself from spending time on all those unnecessary activities that clutter the working day, force people into staying late to catch up on essential tasks, and provide an enormous workload with almost nothing to show for it.

Stopping unnecessary meetings would boost available working time, lower frustration, cut costs, and free up time for essentials during the normal working day.

Take meetings. My own experience has been that as many as 75% of meetings are unnecessary. They’re mostly called to provide either an illusion of team consensus; to pass information that could be passed in one hundredth of the time by other means; to allow the self-important to have a forum to enjoy hearing their own voices; or to engage in the widespread game of synchronized cover-your-ass. Of the remaining 25% of meetings, close to 100% take too long, are ill-prepared, have poorly coordinated outcomes, or involve far longer in travel time than the meeting itself. Stopping unnecessary meetings would boost available working time, lower frustration, cut costs, and free up time for essentials during the normal working day. Not doing them would get far more done than any fancy scheduling and prioritizing system.

Unnecessary communication is another sinkhole for time and effort. All those copied e-mails, circulated memos and minutes, papers marked “FYI,” and constant demands to “keep me in the loop” and make sure this, that, or the other person is “on side.” The culprit here is a deadly combination of fear and ambition: fear that something will happen behind your back that might harm you; and ambition to become so essential that nothing—and I mean nothing—can happen without your implicit approval. All nonsense, of course, but still accepted as normal.

Cutting out all useless communication, and trusting people instead to get on with their jobs and do what they are paid for, could transform productivity overnight. All it would take is the determination to stop behaving in ways that even clinically-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics would see as crazy.

Another great way to save time and cut waste would be to stop rushing into action before you’ve spent enough time thinking about what you are going to do. Our society places such a ridiculous premium on action over thought that a great deal of activity goes to waste because it was ill-conceived, badly prepared, poorly focused, or simply unnecessary, right from the start. The workplace equivalent of the old saying, “marry in haste, repent at leisure” should be posted in a prominent position on every boss’s desk.

Our society places such a ridiculous premium on action over thought that a great deal of activity goes to waste because it was ill-conceived, badly prepared, poorly focused, or simply unnecessary, right from the start.

An hour’s quiet thought might save a month’s wasted work. A few days of reflection and consideration might prevent 20 people being given a project that they will work on for a year, before it’s finally abandoned as unfeasible. Holding back on angry words, until you can understand clearly what is going on, could save you weeks of trying to repair a shattered relationship.

We are action-mad, reactive idiots for much of our working days, and pay a heavy price for the luxury of feeling that we’ve done something instead of merely thinking about what we ought to do.

Each time you’re distracted, it takes extra time to get back to where you were before.

Don’t add to your own distractions. That latest electronic gizmo, that neat computer software, the fashionable cell phone, or the device to check e-mails fifteen times every minute is only going to make your level of distraction greater. Each time you’re distracted, it takes extra time to get back to where you were before. Enough distractions in a day can leave you exhausted from constant effort, but with nothing actually accomplished—which is pretty much what may people experience as routine.

If you want to make a serious impact on all those activities which consume time with an inadequate—or non-existent—return for the energy expended, try these:
  • Take time to make a list of those activities that consume most of your time.

  • Sort out all the ones that you can stop doing with little or no real effect. Cal this List A.

  • Make a second list of all the ones you can reduce in frequency or delegate. Call this List B.

  • Make a daily “Do not do” list alongside any “to do” list. Make sure that you stop all items on the “ do not do” list. Keep this up until you are no longer even tempted to consider doing them.

  • Delegate everything on List B right away.

  • Spend the time that you’ve freed up thinking, completing essential tasks, and being creative. Defend it like your life.

  • Repeat on a regular basis.




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Monday, February 26, 2020

Are you having fun yet?

Try these nine ideas and start making your work fun again

I just came across a web site dedicated to “The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun.” It’s not specifically about the workplace, but the principles it suggests would work really well there. Most of them fit closely with the basic principles of Slow Leadership, so I’ve taken the liberty of listing them here, with my own, workplace-oriented comments. I also added a ninth principle of my own:
  1. Stop hiding who you really are. So many people do this. They pretend to be someone else: someone more acceptable to the boss; someone more serious and determined; someone who might appear to be a high-flier; someone who “fits in.” Even professional actors need to take a break sometimes and just be themselves. Can you imagine the stress that you’re putting on yourself, trying to be someone that you aren’t, every hour of every working day? And what’s the point anyway? You are who you are. Totally unique in space and time. Who says you aren’t good enough? Don’t fall for that rubbish. All that matters for a satisfying life is to be the best possible version of whoever and whatever you are: to develop your unique talents, express your special personality, and contribute all that you can to the life and people around you. Never, never, accept that you aren’t “worthy.” That’s crazy talk. Being yourself, openly and with joy, is essential to having fun anywhere—and especially at work.

  2. Start being intensely selfish. I’m not quite sure about “intensely selfish,” but I see what they are getting at. I would rephrase this as: “Start standing up for yourself and what you believe in.” No one will ever have the same degree of interest and investment in your life and future as you. No one will ever care as much as you do. No one will ever understand your needs as well, or know what it is like to be you and do what you do. People are always trying to make us into the kind of people they want us to be; to make us fit the mold and conform to their views. Do they do this for our benefit? No way! It’s for them: to stop us causing them trouble, messing up their neat lives, asking for things they don’t want us to have. This isn’t the same as people who give us good advice or share their experiences to stop us making bad mistakes. I’m talking about those who will compel us to fit in, if they are able. Focus on yourself and your own needs. At work, it’s likely that no one else will.

  3. Stop following the rules. Yea! Those rules are there to force you into conformity. The more you follow them, the less creative, individual, interesting, and open-minded you will become. There are two kinds of workplace rules: necessary ones (like rules for safety) and the rest. The first account for probably less than 10% of all the rules around. You’ll never have fun by following the rules. You’ll just become a grey, boring, wage slave, with not a single difference from all the other wage slaves around you. You won’t even advance your career much. No one ever promoted someone who didn’t stand out from the crowd in at least some way.

  4. Start scaring yourself. To learn, to grow, to develop who you are, to find excitement and fun, you have to take risks. If it doesn’t scare you, it isn’t a risk. Fun is all about taking risks—look at all the theme parks with their scary rides. Look at all the people who go surfing, or snow-boarding, or climb scary mountains, or challenge their minds with reading and listening to great music. Don’t wait for the universe to start scaring you. It may well do so in ways you really don’t want. Start scaring yourself. At work, this means taking on new and scary challenges, volunteering for jobs that you aren’t sure that you can do, taking on learning opportunities that scare you. Dare to do what you’ve never done before. Practice “conscious incompetence.” Just do it!

  5. Stop taking it all so damn seriously. Especially yourself. The most boring, least fun people around are all those who take themselves so seriously it hurts. They drone on and on about whatever tedious things they are involved in. They get hung up with never losing face or admitting they are wrong. They demand constant reassurance about their inflated sense of self-importance. There’s one life. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all there is. Crap happens—often. The more seriously you take it, they more it will worry you, and the more pain you’ll suffer as a result. Most of the misery in the world that humans cause (and that’s an awful lot of it) comes from people trying to control their lives down to the most minute details. They think they’re so damned important that everyone, and everything, else has to be lined up for their convenience. It will never happen. Give it up, sit back, and enjoy your ride around the sun. You might as well, since there’s usually damn all you can do about it anyway.

  6. Start getting rid of the crap. I am constantly amazed at how much crap people collect around them, especially in the workplace. Pack rats look tidy by comparison. All those electronic gizmos to stay in touch, all the “to do” lists, the constant meetings, the endless e-mails and memos. How much of it ever accomplishes anything? My guess is that 80% of it is simply distraction and a waste of time. People complain that they have no time to do their jobs, yet waste most of the time that they have reading e-mails, attending pointless meetings, and contributing to the tide of organizational crap engulfing them by producing e-mails and calling meetings of their own. Give it up. You’ll be amazed how much time you have suddenly; and how much fun you can pack into it, in place of all the “stuff” that was there before.

  7. Stop being busy. Constant busyness is the curse of our generation. People believe that if you aren’t constantly busy, you’re not pulling your weight. The curse of the Puritan Work Ethic hangs over us, like a cloud full of misery and drizzle. Busy is not the same as productive. Busy doesn’t mean “good” or “worthy.” Mostly it means “doing things for the sake of convincing others that I am worth keeping on here.” When lay-offs started becoming commonplace, people began extreme efforts to appear busy every moment of the day. As Hamburger Management became conventional, bosses starting measuring activity, because they had no idea how to measure effectiveness, and they thought they should measure something. The result is people who are too busy to have fun, too busy to live their lives, too busy to enjoy anything. Don’t join them. Life has enough misery without adding to it.

  8. Start something. I can’t do better than quote a comment from an earlier post: “Trying something new is like catnip—irresistible fun. Getting better and better at something that I initially did badly—THAT breeds enthusiasm.” Don’t wait for others, or you’ll wait for ever. Start it yourself.

  9. Don’t worry what others will think about you. This is my “extra” principle. All too many people are stuck because they’re worried what others may think. The truth of the matter is that others are mostly doing what we all do most of the time—thinking about themselves. They aren’t concerned with you at all. A lot of the time, they aren’t even aware of your existence. So if, from time to time, they drag themselves away from self-absorption just long enough to disapprove of whatever you’re doing, ignore them. It’s your life, not theirs. Self-doubt and fear of embarrassment are major dampeners on any kind of fun. Throw them away. They aren’t worth the time of day.
When do people perform best at any task, from sport to nuclear physics? When they’re relaxed, intent on what they’re doing and more of less oblivious of everything else. When they’re having fun. So loosen up and enjoy your life.



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Friday, February 16, 2020

Workplace Karma

Do unto others, and they will make sure they do unto you



A thought floated across my mind recently, when I was reading something about the ideas of “karmic law.” I’m not an expert in Buddhist or Eastern thought, but what I understand of the idea of karma is that it’s a refined version of cause and effect: what you do affects what happens to you, or “what you give out is what you get back.”

It seems to me that you don’t need to have any kind of belief in either the supernatural or Eastern religion to see that “what you give out is what you get back” represents simple realism.

Suppose that you’re a typical “Hamburger Manager.” You’re tough, assertive, macho, obsessed with short-term results, and tireless in your pursuit of your own ambition. What you “put out” in terms of behaviors will likely include:
  • Constantly talking tough—then complaining that no one likes you, though you’re really a nice person.

  • Hounding subordinates to do more and more with less and less—until everyone is so tired that they produce less and less, however hard they work.

  • Demanding longer and longer hours of unpaid overtime—and expecting bigger bonuses for yourself as a result.

  • Claiming that money is the only incentive—while cutting back wherever you can on salary payments.

  • Refusing to consider anything other than “meeting the numbers”—even if those numbers are based only on wishful thinking.

  • Accepting bad behavior from anyone who “brings home the bacon”—and sneering at the “impractical idealism” of those who suggest that this is unacceptable.

  • Thoughtlessly copying the cult of disdain for anything “soft,” “liberal,” or “impractical”—which is pretty much everything that doesn’t fit with the opinions of your bosses.

  • Maintining rigidity of outlook—because true believers never even consider the tiniest doubt about orthodoxy.
What will likely come back to you as a result?
  • Tough talk and macho behavior provokes the same kind of response. Aggression breeds aggression in return, so life becomes a constant battle of wills. All the aggression that you encounter will then likely make you more aggressive, and so on, round and round, in a never-ending process of escalation.

  • Hounding subordinates and forcing them into longer and longer working days will produce stress, tiredness, frustration, and burnout. Hourly productivity and creativity will fall—so the only way to catch up on targets will be still to demand still longer hours and exert yet more pressure. You’ll constantly have to do more and more hounding. It won’t end until there’s some kind of collapse.

  • Whenever money is used as the sole incentive, people quickly discover that any amount that you give soon becomes accepted as the “going rate” and loses its incentive effect. If you raise pay to bring back an incentive, you need to make still more profit to cover the extra cost. It turns into a continual, fruitless game of “catch up.” If you hold out and refuse to drive up salary costs, you have no further incentive availave—and you incur higher costs elsewhere as you are forced to replace those who leave. This is (politely) known as a lose:lose strategy.

  • Accepting any kind of behavior from jerks and bullies, so long as they meet the numbers and get results, creates an atmosphere so toxic that few people will stay in it for long—especially anyone with talent and intelligence. You’ll get the staff that you deserve—along with the high turnover, constant hassles, and looming law suits. Besides, anyone who tolerates jerks is, by definition, a jerk themselves. He or she who tolerates most jerks is the jerk-in-chief.

  • A rigid, numbers-based, macho outlook is a great way to destroy any sparks of creativity in yourself and others. Your competitors will have the ideas, and you will be driven back to competing on low costs and desperately trying to mimic what others have produced before you.
What the universe will give you back from giving out Hamburger Management is all the worst, most stressful, and least fulfilling aspects of the business environment. And if that tempts you to respond with even more rigorous Hamburger Management thinking, you’ll get still more of the same. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you lead like an idiot, you’ll be surrounded by idiocy. If you act like a bullying, aggressive bastard, you’ll be amazed at how many other nasty, callous bastards you will encounter every day; and how keen they will be to screw you over on every possible occasion.

The other reality of this faux-karmic law is that it multiplies. There’s one of you (one manager, one organization), but thousands upon thousands of other people to return what you send out. Act aggressively and thoughtlessly and all these thousands will return the same behavior, often with interest. So, if you act like a jerk, what you’ll get back is the same behavior, multiplied by the number of people who suffer from what you do.

There it is: behave like the stereotypical, bullying manager and that’s exactly what you’ll encounter in return. Do it consistently, and your return will be multiplied by several orders of magnitude. Give out honesty, trust, creativity, and sensitivity to others and that’s what the universe will most likely play back to you, also enhanced and extended.

It’s your choice. If your daily experience at work is that the world is full of people throwing sh*t around, the chances are extremely high that you are a major contributor to the process that put all that brown stuff there for them to throw back at you. Maybe, if you stop dishing it out, you’ll begin to find that less comes back. If everyone did that, very soon there would be none to throw around any more. Think about it.



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Tuesday, February 13, 2020

Start Practicing “Conscious Incompetence”

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly first. In the real world, doing something new almost always means doing it poorly the first few times. Improvising never produces a polished result, but it's nearly always the first step towards creating something new and worthwhile. To do something new, you have to make a conscious decision to let yourself try things that you know you can't do. That's practicing "Conscious Incompetence."


Sir Winston Churchill wrote:
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.
The way to get out from the herd and let adversity itself turn you into the next big success is to practice “Conscious Incompetence.”

Why do you need it? To make time and space for learning. What is it like when you do something you haven’t done before? You do a pretty poor job of it. You do it badly. There’s no other way to learn. If you’re only willing to do things well, you can’t improvise or do anything new. To develop your potential you must start to cultivate a new skill: the skill of “Conscious Incompetence.”

In the world of work, there is so much pressure for doing things correctly from the start that most people live in a constant state of anxiety. If you aren’t allowed a period of grace to learn by doing things badly, you’d better stick just to what you know you can do already. If you’re to “hit the ground running” in a business that has “no room for passengers,” you must either do everything competently from the start or risk being pushed aside. The result of such needless torment is that people draw back from new areas. They’ve survived to the point of doing something—anything—capably, so they don’t want to risk themselves by stepping outside this hard-won comfort zone.

“So what exactly is it?”

“Conscious Incompetence” is doing something that you know you can’t yet do, let alone do well, for the purpose of learning how to do it better. It’s allowing yourself to make a mess and get things wrong, because you’ll never know how to do better until you get past that point. And it’s the basis of all learning. If you can’t allow yourself to make mistakes and probably look silly doing it; if you can’t allow yourself to attempt what you know you won’t be able to do at first; if you can’t allow yourself to take the risk of screwing up; then you also can’t allow yourself to learn or develop. And if your boss or your organization demand near perfection from the first moment, they’re fools. The only result will be employees who never try anything new at all.

“Conscious Incompetence” should be required behavior in every organization. This is true for individuals, teams, and the whole corporation too. The world makes unavoidable and unexpected demands on us. Such demands force us along new paths, if we want to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. Improvising and learning by doing are perfectly natural human activities. So are making a mess, failing the first few times, and getting in a muddle with new ideas, but only making them deliberate will allow us to use them effectively, whenever and wherever and however we want—without feeling so embarrassed or silly that we resolve not to risk either again.

“How do I start?”

By seeing what might work and trying it, even if you’re certain that you’ll do it badly at first. This requires four steps:

Step 1: Ask yourself, “Do I think this might be a useful idea or skill?”
If the answer is “yes,” consider how you can try it out. It’s very easy to be misled by appearances or the opinions of others. Those who advised major corporations to indulge in creative accounting were simply giving opinions. Were their opinions correct? Events have proven they were not. What appears to be new and useful maybe a delusion or a miracle. You won’t know until you try.

This sounds simple, but it’s amazing how often managers turn down most fresh options without even trying them, purely because they aren’t things they know they can already do well. If what you try doesn’t work, drop it. But at least you now know that it isn’t really an option, and—far more important—you know why.

Don’t accept conventional wisdom. Don’t make easy assumptions (to assume, it is said, is usually to make an ass out of U and me). Distinguish causes from their effects. Explore, poke, probe and question. Don’t worry what others think. What passes for thinking most of the time within organizations is merely the rearrangement of old habits and preset opinions. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was neither troubled by modesty nor inhibited in his comments on others, once wrote:
Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
Merely by trying things others ignore or turn down without question, you’ll build an enviable reputation as an outstanding creative thinker.

Step 2: Ask yourself, “What tells me that the conventional answer to this is true?”
You need to be clear about what is going on. If someone tells you, “we have a retention problem,” take the time to ask whether that is true; and if you think it may be, take the next step and explore what you can see, hear or experience that actually tells you that’s the problem that exists.

Confusion is the enemy of effective judgment. Perhaps a problem does exist, but if you’re confused about its nature and extent, there is little chance that you can take correct decisions on what to do about it.

The fear that is generated in harsh times makes us hurry to premature action. If we believe we need to do something immediately, we have little option except to reach for the conventional solution. Yet most of our requirement for immediate action comes from anxiety, not reality. Few things that occur in organizations demand instant responses. Even half an hour of focused thought can prevent disaster and a major loss of face.

Make a list of the “proofs” that demonstrate the problem. You will need this for the next step.

Step 3: Ask “why not?” repeatedly until exhausted all the options you can discover.
“Why?” and “Why not?” are the most useful questions in the universe. Perhaps that’s why toddlers use it so often. They haven’t yet had it knocked out of them by hostile authority figures. They also need to learn a whole lot in a hurry and know, instinctively, that asking “why?” and “why not?” all the time is the best way to do it. Most parents find their child’s persistence in asking “why not?” soon becomes maddening. Most bosses feel exactly the same way about their subordinates. Both groups are wrong. Asking “why not?” can be uncomfortable, but it is nearly always productive.

Step 4: Give yourself (and those who work for you) permission to improvise and try new approaches, even if you all get it wrong first time.
Suppose that Brad is afraid of anything that might suggest incompetence or threaten failure. Many high performers are. They’re typically extremely superstitious about risking even the possibility of failure, because they have never experienced it in their past.

Brad is faced with an important decision. He wants to shine—and he really, really doesn’t want to make a mistake, or take any risks that he can avoid. The best way to meet both these objectives looks to be to use his knowledge and memory to see how this kind of decision has been made before, then replicate it.

Brad looks for this information in the past. He remembers what he has done that turned out well; recalls what he learned at business school and corporate training events; searches out industry best practice. He finds many things that he already knows, and uses this knowledge to make a decision that has the best chances of being correct in terms of past knowledge. That’s why he will probably never develop more than a fraction of his potential.

Susan comes up against the same decision, but decides it’s a great chance for stealthily practicing “Conscious Incompetence.” (It’s usually best done in secret. The conventional parts of the world tend to misunderstand.)

Now she adds the magic ingredient that is going to transform her career. She takes time to review all the other options she can think up that don’t match industry best practice, and aren’t in line with how things have been done before. She knows that she isn’t likely to be good at them, but checks them out just the same. By doing this, she has started learning something new, not just learning more about what she already knows.

When Susan starts to implement her idea, she makes many mistakes — she knew she had little previous competence to help her — but each one teaches her more. She persists in the face of failure. By the end of the project, Susan has accessed more of her potential, the company has gained a new approach, and senior management has recognized a talent in the making. Brad is still polishing his existing knowledge and wonders why his career isn’t progressing.

“Conscious Incompetence” (and the deliberate testing, improvisation, and experiential learning that it produces) should be required behavior in every organization. It is the only way for organizations, and the people in them, to access untapped ideas and unused potential and put them to practical use.

“Now I get it!”

In today’s harsh, macho, grab-and-go business environment, the real risks come from repeating the past and believing that you already know all the answers. Sure, experimenting takes time. Sure, there will be many mistakes and stumbles along the way. Sure, people will have to persist in new activities to become good at doing them. So what? That’s how things work. The only new things you can do instantly, without time to practice or develop a skill, are so inconsequential that they’re hardly worth doing at all.

And, sure, you’ll look silly many times. But not half as silly as you’ll look when it becomes clear that the idea that you rejected without fully considering or trying turns into a killer advantage for a competitor.



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Friday, February 09, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 3)

Deficit Thinking Ruins Lives

Whatever else you do, drop the habit of deficit thinking: concentrating on what’s wrong, what’s missing, and what’s not working, rather than what is. It’s a very poor way of looking at the world, and a major source of all kinds of limiting and negative beliefs.This is the third and final posting in this series. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The principal source of negative beliefs is an ingrained habit of deficit thinking. This means focusing on gaps and weaknesses (the deficit) instead of what’s working (and can be made to work still better). It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a source of frustration and depression.

All beliefs need regular scrutiny

You should challenge all your beliefs. All beliefs need to be checked regularly for accuracy and usefulness, so question them constantly. It’s tempting to take comfort in beliefs when life is difficult and the future is uncertain. Beliefs help you feel stable. You’ll feel uneasy about recognizing the ideas you trust could be false. But if you’re thinking clearly, you’ll see that a true belief will always stand up to scrutiny. It’s the false, outdated beliefs that must be moved out of your way. It is always worth asking yourself, “Is this true? How do I know it is true? Is it still to be trusted?”

Negative or limiting beliefs need to be subjected to especially rigorous questioning. Since they stop you from doing something, it’s hard to prove them false in any other way. When you try some idea, you find out how well it works. But when your beliefs prevent you from even making an attempts, you cannot know for sure what might have happened if you had. That’s why these belief are so pernicious: they remove options and possibilities without testing them—or, usually even considering them properly.

Here’s how to get rid of deficit thinking

  • Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies. You’ll always find plenty, especially if you set your standards so high at the start that there’s no way you can even come close. That’s like deciding to start playing golf, then deciding that you’re no good unless you can beat Tiger Woods right away.

  • Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful. Perfectionism can easily become a disease. Life is what it is. The skill is to be able to do something useful and fun with whatever the universe serves up.

  • Don’t take fears for reality, commonplace thoughts for truth, and worries for real problems. Nearly all such opinions and thoughts are wrong and the problems don’t exist outside your mind. Many people fall into the habit of over-dramatizing their lives, perhaps to make them feel more exciting than they are. But when you play up the good parts, you do the same (or more) to the bad ones. Look at the media. How many good news items do you see, compared to all the ones promising doom and gloom?

  • Quit taking yourself so damn seriously. Life is uncertain and difficult enough without adding to your problems. Slow down, relax, and chill out. It’s good to be insignificant. It lets you have fun while all the pompous, important types are giving themselves ulcers.

  • Don’t buy the foolish idea you have a right to be happy. There’s no such right. Sometimes you’ll feel happy, sometimes sad, and very often neither. That’s the way life is. Get used to it.

  • Stop watching your emotions. They’re not worth it. They go up, then down, then up again: random gyrations like the stockmarket. No one really knows why, whatever they try to tell you—not even mental health professionals. You can’t will your emotions go or stay where you want, so quit driving yourself nuts by trying.

  • Don’t casually pick up beliefs from other people. If you saw a slice of pizza lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it? No? Then why do so many people pick up beliefs and assumptions from just about anyone and swallow them down without a moment’s hesitation? They’re even more likely to contain something toxic than the pizza. What you put in your head can poison you as easily as something you put in your mouth.

Free yourself from the tyranny of useless beliefs

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some unexamined belief about what is “normal” or “standard.” Here’s an example. One company I worked in had a common belief that anyone who hadn’t been promoted to a serious management position by the age of 30 was never going to be promoted. There was no basis for this belief, but it persisted. The results were predictable. People of 29 lived in constant fear of being “passed over.” By age 31, anyone not promoted had already left to find another job.

A good way to start clearing up the problems in your life is by throwing away all your old, wrongheaded beliefs and assumptions. Many of them will be plain wrong; others will be long past their “sell by” date. Most people carry around a heavy load of such mistaken beliefs about the world, themselves, and others: beliefs that stir up negative emotions and behaviors; assumptions that cause deficit thinking; and a host of other habitual ways of seeing the world virtually guaranteed to limit their achievements and cause them unnecessary suffering.

Take them out and question them mercilessly. If they’re still true and sound, you have nothing to lose. They’ll come out of the process unscathed. If they aren’t useful any more—and many, many won’t be—drop them immediately. Then make sure you repeat the process often. Today’s knowledge quickly gets stale. Yesterday’s beliefs soon become moldy. Don’t let them fill your mind with outdated ideas and cripple you with deficit thinking.



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Thursday, February 08, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I considered the power and importance of essentially unprovable beliefs in determining people’s actions and outlook. In this part, the focus is on limiting beliefs: those that actively reduce the options open to you in dealing with whatever life brings. Limiting beliefs can block your future and confine your choices. Start by recognizing them and understanding how they work and what they do. Then counteract the effects by broadening your outlook and adding to your strengths. You don’t need these beliefs. Let them go.


Suppose you think that you have no chance of ever living the kind of life you want. Maybe someone in the past told you you would never make anything of yourself—and you believed them. Children are very impressionable. They easily believe what they’re told, especially by parents and others they look up to. You may have been living with this ever since. Something in your head keeps telling you it’s not worth making an effort, because you’ll never succeed.

Stop and ask yourself whether this is true or not. Was it ever true? Has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? My guess is that it’s true as long as you believe it is. The minute you tell yourself you can do it, you can succeed, that will be true instead. Try it.

Limiting beliefs have power over you only because you treat them as the truth

Remember, a belief is no more than a thought or opinion that’s automatically treated as correct. In reality, they have no greater likelihood of being right than any other thoughts. But once we give them the label “belief,” we convince ourselves they’re different and must not be questioned. Whether they’re our own beliefs, or ones we’ve accepted from others, or the commonly-held beliefs of the society in which we live, they aren’t necessarily true—even if that’s how we’ve come to treat them.

There are at least four distinct sources of limiting beliefs:
  1. Hidden fears. Nearly everyone has a few long-standing, hidden, and irrational fears. My mother was deeply afraid of frogs, though she knew they couldn’t hurt her. For other people, it’s spiders or snakes (not so irrational here in Arizona!), flying or enclosed spaces. The one that’s most likely to block people’s careers is fear of risk. Any change involves risk. Life itself is risky. Beware telling yourself: “I could never do that.” It may be true (I could never be an Olympic athlete), but it may be nothing more than an irrational fear. Check it out. You have nothing to lose. Try kissing a few frogs to see if you can find a prince.

  2. Outdated habits. Outdated habits are like worn-out, shabby clothes. They may be comfortable but they look ridiculous to everyone else. Comfort is more powerful than most people believe. Look at all the people who know they ought to change something in their lives, but keep putting it off because they’re comfortable as they are. The clue is when you notice yourself thinking: “It’s going to be trouble. Probably more than it’s worth.” Ask yourself if you want to stay fat, dumb and happy. I guess many people do.

  3. Mixed-up values. Inner values are much more powerful in people’s lives than they credit. But, like everything else in our world, they sometimes get a little muddled and crazy. People tell themselves they must do something. Why? Because it’s their duty. Because it’s “right.” Because it’s the way to get ahead. Because … whatever. Beware of emotional reactions driven by your values. If your decision is a thoughtful one, that’s fine. If it’s an immediate, instinctive reaction, take care. The world has many shades between “black” and “white” and they’re worth exploring before you settle on a choice.

  4. Untested assumptions. Untested assumptions are caused by mental laziness. There’s no kinder way to put it. People who don’t check out their beliefs and assumptions are the couch potatoes of the mental world. Hey, it’s easier to reach for the mental remote and look for some more entertainment than do the work of weighing choices and checking data seriously.
Until you’re conscious of your limiting beliefs, and how they work against you, you’re powerless to overcome them. Take back your freedom of choice. Don’t let mere opinions call the shots in your life. Look around inside your head. Do some mental “spring-cleaning.” Chase those silly fears and outdated habits out of the dusty corners of your mind. Sort out your values and get them working to help you instead of hinder. And most of all, get off that mental couch, put down the remote and do some serious exercise. If you let your mental muscles get flabby, you’ll pay for it one way or another, believe me.



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