My Maisie – thoughts on preparing to be a father

Sonogram of Maisie at 20 weeks and 2 days.
Sonogram of Maisie at 20 weeks and 2 days.

Today I learned that the little creature growing inside my wife is a girl. She’ll be called Maisie and we’re expecting her in October. I have some thoughts.

Obviously I’ve known for close to twenty weeks that I’m going to be a father. But something about knowing the gender adds a degree more clarity to what that means. I suppose, at the least, it lets me begin to make some broad predictions about what exactly is heading my way. And while I can’t say much for sure, there are things I know.

Gender is an open question in our society. Like it or not, your gender will determine some of the things you experience in life. Maisie will enter a world where women still aren’t given the same opportunities as men. That being said, I think that the decades long feminist struggle has at least furnished her with a vibrant, modern interpretation of what it means to be woman; a deep well of clear thinking from which to drink. Perhaps if I were having a son I would be more worried about how to help him deal with what it means to be a man in the 21st Century.

For my part I now know that I will be responsible for her first, most formative idea of what men are and what it means to relate to them. How I behave towards her, how I treat her mother, these things will shape her idea of gender relationships. It’s an awesome responsibility. I hope I rise to the occasion.

Beyond that there are many things which are more applicable to children in general. And while these haven’t changed, I can now conjure a stronger image of what they will be like. What I do as her father will shape Maisie’s understanding of the world and her place in it, it will hard wire within her a sense of her own worth and purpose. I can help her see the world as a realm of possibilities or I can bring her up to fear. Every choice I make, every small gesture, will communicate profound ideas to her. Maisie’s home, in her early years, shaped in large part by my actions, will be her normal.

I’m under no illusions that any amount of thinking on my part, any amount of philosophy, will make me a flawless father. Imperfect as I am my parenting will leave Maisie with her own quirks of character. My tendency to overthink things, my fear of failure, my phobia of eating things which contain bones! All of these will do things to Maisie. But now that I think about it I realise that it is not right to assume that my flaws will translate into weaknesses within my child. After all, isn’t it struggle that makes us strong? Perhaps, for all my grand plans, it will be the ways in which I fail as a father that are Maisie’s greatest gifts. Perhaps.

Anyway. She’s on her way. I’ll do my best to be ready for her.

The Best War is One You Don’t Have to Fight

At the moment it feels almost as if we are edging towards war with the EU27. Our Prime Minister is talking up the conflict as a way to boost her election campaign and we are, it seems, lapping it up. Fighting feels better than sitting back and waiting, thinking. Fighting feels proactive.

That feeling is common. It’s also dangerous. The bias towards action has to be considered carefully because it may well be more of a way to manage our inner turmoil than to achieve meaningful results. It may feel good to shout at someone who has hurt you but does that do more harm than good in the long term?

When I think about this I’m reminded of a session playing an improv game I call Chaos Chairs. The general idea is that a team of a dozen or so Sitters has to prevent one person, the Walker, sitting down by moving between chairs, covering the available chair before the Walker can sit. In this game it’s always a question of when and if to move because if you move to cover the next chair you leave your current chair open. In this particular session a moment came when the Walker was closing in on the free chair. Everyone froze, no one seemed to want to take the action to cover the chair. Then, as the Walker came closer, feeling the pressure to just do something a woman moved to cover the open chair. Sadly she vacated a chair even closer to the Walker. She felt pressure to act. Acting, even if that action made the situation worse, was preferable to the pain of restraint.

It’s not wrong to feel this way. Feelings are never wrong. They’re just part of how we understand the world. What matters is that we reflect and consider what those feelings mean, where they come from, and what we should do. Why am I looking for a fight? Is this action skilful or simply self indulgent?

Theresa May wants us to respond to her fighting words as a mindless crowd. She doesn’t want us to think. She just wants us to react, unreflectingly, and deliver her an election landslide. We might blame her for such a cynical ploy but if it succeeds we have only ourselves to blame.

The EU27 are not our enemy. They represent our most important partners in trade, security, culture, and so much more. We are a continent united by shared history and shared values. May wants to make them our enemy so that she can fight them for us, be our champion and defender. She seems unconcerned with how this might damage us.

Now is a time for measured words and skilful actions. Not a broken record of rhetoric and perverse patriotism. It might be too late for this current disaster cycle but as we angrily argue ourselves into the abyss I am reminded of and reaffirmed in my belief that the next stage of human culture must be to embrace a more mindful, more nuanced understanding of what drives us. Remember the opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness.

The Secret of Success is Showing Up

Today’s post is one of my personal favourites types of post – it’s a post where I get to demonstrate what I mean in how I write it. Specifically, you can look down below and see over three hundred words which I wrote and then abandoned for one very good reason: awareness.

You see, I’ve come to believe that the opposite of productivity is distractedness. To understand what I mean by that I should clarify what both of those things mean to me.

Productivity is, as far as I am concerned, simply doing the right thing at the right time in the right way.

Distractedness is defined in my world as conflict between what you are doing and what you are not doing.

It’s easy to see how being distracted, in conflict, immediately negates being productive. How can you do the right thing at the right time in the right way while conflicted about what you’re doing?

But we can take this even further when we define what it means to be undistracted.

Woody Allen once said that the secret to success is showing up. Being there, in other words, is what matters. In the initial context he meant that physically but we have all seen and, indeed, been people who are physically there but mentally and emotionally on another planet.

Being undistracted, for me, means being present. Many would call this mindful or aware. And through awareness you can achieve the optimal state of productivity. Only awareness can enable you to do the right thing, at the right time in the right way.

As a coach I know that awareness and self correction are the best path to improvement. I see it all the time. Enhance awareness, decrease distractedness, and we begin to see an immediate but gradual change, slowly and surely towards doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way.

What has all this got to to do with the abortive blog below?

When I began to write this piece today I went off in a particular direction. I was moving quickly and feeling good. But then I slowed. Then I stopped. Before I knew it I was fiddling with my phone and looking at Twitter. I had become distracted.

Distraction is, as above, simply conflict. My clarity and certainty about what I was doing had ebbed away and my mind had become distracted. Twitter is, in this sense, not what distracted me. It’s just what I did when in a state of distraction. I could just as easily have rearranged my book shelf, paired up my socks or doodled on my notepad.

I become unhappy – I could see that I wasn’t being productive. And then awareness kicked in. I was distracted because I was doing the wrong thing! I needed to let go of my work and start again because my direction was wrong.

I then sat down and wrote out this new post in the space of ten minutes. I could certainly have tried to push through, applied will power to the problem and held my own feet to the fire of my poor choices earlier today. But not this man of mindfulness. Oh no.

You rarely get to see how the sausage is made. This is good for your love of sausages but if you’re thinking of becoming a butcher it’s a major impediment. I hope this by showing you the below abandoned post and by letting you in on my process, showing you the relationship between awareness and productivity, you’ll understand that the Hard Not Complicated philosophy goes far beyond what we normally call creativity.

BELOW YOU CAN SEE THE BLOG POST I DIDN’T WRITE

Productivity is a big idea in business. It’s the holy grail, I’ve been told, of all business decisions making. If we could somehow define and clarify what it means to be productive, make it simple, then we could rule the world!

While I have no immediate plans for world domination, I’d like to share my personal Hard Not Complicated perspective on productivity.

We can define being productive in the following terms:

Doing the right thing in the right way at the right time.

A good way to think about this is to do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you run a factory making shoes. At one end you feed in raw materials like leather and rubber, and at the other you spit out shoes. You have various components and parts always in motion, different people doing different things.

Now imagine that in this factory you have a new, magical device that makes everyone telepathic!

All your workers are constantly aware of what everyone else is doing and even aware of how the machines are performing. You have a perfect flow of information around the factory.

Given this state of affairs, what would you need to do to ensure optimal productivity?

As far as I can see, all you would need would be a single binary piece of information:

  • Customer Satisfaction up
  • Customer Satisfaction down

With this simple binary input a system with a perfect flow of information would be able to self correct automatically, changes propagating through the group seamlessly and as each active agent responds to the needs and wants of each other active agent, driven directly by the needs of the consumer.

Over time such a system would reach an optimal state with independent, intelligent actors working with perfect, real time information. They would do the right thing – according to the needs of the consumer, in the right way – as arrived at through continual optimisation, at the right time – based on real time input.

NOTE: I’m not here saying that this system would be perfect. I don’t believe that any system can ever be perfect. Perfect is impossible. But I believe it would achieve the best possible state – hence optimal.

We can derive from this thought experiment, crude though it is, that optimal productivity is the result of optimal awareness.

Hard Not Complicated Tips

A new thing I'm trying out is to have a weekly theme for my communications and split my Monday, Wednesday and Friday communications to address that theme in different ways.

On Monday I talked about how I'm using visualisation to set and stick to long term goals. Pop back and read it if you haven't yet.

Today I want to offer some quick tips on how to do this better.

One: Make it emotional

Visualisations work by stimulating us emotionally. If we want data to back up logical decision making we don't need a visualisation, we need a spreadsheet and a bunch of charts. A strong visualisation needs to be an emotional kick in the arse.

Pro-emotional tip – emotions exist in the body, not just the brain. Maybe that's why we call them "feelings"? If a visualisation doesn't make you feel something physically then it's not emotional enough. Use embodied emotions meditation techniques to tune your ability to feel emotions in your body and ensure your visualisations are powerful enough to stimulate them.

Two: Keep it simple

A picture paints a thousand words so you don't need anything complicated. A great visualisation needs to be at your fingertips, mentally speaking, and ready to go in a moment. If it takes you hours to survey your scene then you won't use it often enough to be helpful.

If your goal doesn't lend itself to simple visualisation in a literal way, consider metaphor and the use of personas. Imagine yourself as a King or Queen, see yourself standing on the moon. The picture can have meanings that are figurative which allows you to pack even more meaning and emotional punch into something you can bring to mind in moments.

Three: If it isn't working, change it

Sometimes a visualisation seems wonderful at first but if you find it stops working over time it may be that your goals have moved on or your emotional triggers have changed. Maybe the visualisation was more powerful for its novelty than anything else.

Don't be afraid, in these circumstances, to change what you use. Try, first, tweaking one or two elements. See if this makes the visualisation more or less powerful. If you change too many things at once it will be harder to know what is and isn't helping.

On Friday I'll be sending out my weekly newsletter which will link back to this and Monday's blog as well as offering extra tidbits, news about what Sabre Tooth Panda is up to and more. If you'd like to find out more about being creative the Hard Not Complicated way, go to http://www.sabretoothpanda.com/contactus to sign up for our newsletter and get a free thirty minute consultation.

Life’s Snapshot

I’m working on a rather longer piece at the moment, inspired by my favourite villains, both of tv and film, and from literature old and new. I’m writing about the lessons in success we can learn from them and why the hero might not be the best role model if you want to live a proactive life. But as I write this I wanted to share an insight that I’ve already put to use. I call it The Littlefinger Rule.

This bit may contain spoilers. Little ones.

Last week millions of people watched the finale of Game of Thrones Season Six. And while most probably spent the following days wondering about the implications of Jon Snow’s true parentage or anticipating the epic battles that are surely on their way now that The Queen of Dragons is crossing the Iron Sea, I spent them rethinking my life.

That’s because of this one short speech delivered by Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in conversation with Sansa Stark.

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make this picture a reality, pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by side.

My immediate thought was that this is some strong long term planning technique; of each thing ask if it really contributes to your long term goal. But then, on further reflection, I realised the true genius of one of GoT’s most mysterious villains – the simplicity of the image.

When you ask people about what they want in life, and this is certainly the case for me, they will usually give you a list of things. A nice house, a happy family, a good job, a new car, fancy holidays, close friends, etc. Unlike Littlefinger most people aren’t as single minded in their aims. But, of course, this nuance comes with a cost.

While Littlefinger can summon, in seconds, a rich, emotionally powerful image that unambiguously sums up his principal motivation, I realised that I could not. For me it took a good couple of minutes to think through my life goals and even longer to work them into strong images to which I had a powerful emotional response. What I realised was this:

  • If you can’t see it in a snapshot, it’s too complicated for your monkey brain.

This leads us to a tricky problem: how do you sum up in a single snapshot a complicated set of goals. While sitting on the Iron Throne and ruling the Seven Kingdoms comes with an obvious image right from the start, I realised that for me and my goals, what I needed were metaphors.

So over the weekend I sat down with my wife and we talked about what I want out of my life. We talked about my goals and aims, the things that worry me or upset me and the things I wish to overcome. In the end we managed to narrow it all down to four areas:

  1. Health – my physical, emotional and mental wellbeing
  2. Adventure – living a full and exciting life with learning and new experiences
  3. Love – being a good friend and loved one to those around me
  4. Work – providing for myself and my family with meaningful employment

For each of these areas I wrote down a short, 100 words or so, description based on what this state would look and feel like. But even these were too complicated to translate to simple snapshots that could be called upon in a moment. Too detailed to be emotionally punchy.

As a final step I decided to create personas – metaphorical states that could represent the wider meaning of each life goal. I’d like to share those with you now.

  1. Aran the Beach Bod – I’ve never been entirely comfortable with my body. When I imagine myself as the picture of health and fitness the image of me, on a beach, untroubled by being in public semi naked(!) is about as powerful an emotional driver I can come up with. In this image I see sports equipment and maybe even a surfboard. This is an Aran who is healthy and confident.
  2. Aran the Warrior Monk – Bold, outward facing action mixed with a deep inner life. In this snapshot I imagine myself dressed in some Asian inspired robes, carrying a staff. Again I’m outside, with others but not tethered to anything or anyone. In this image I see freedom and adventure, learning and self expression. This is an Aran who lives a full life.
  3. Aran the Zen Dad – I’m not a father yet but I know that, when I am, this will be the biggest personal challenge of my life. So when I think about being a good friend and loved one it’s in the role of a dad that this idea is most profound. In this snapshot, a simple image compared to the first two, I’m a little older, a little calmer, I see a man who is ready and able to be there for those around him. I’m in my home which is a welcoming and loving place and there’s my child who represents something joyful, not pressure and not fear. This is an Aran who can be there for others because he’s centred in himself.
  4. Aran the Guru Coach – this one is simple. When I think about my work, when I imagine any scene in which I am delivering services to anyone, what I see in this snapshot is a coach and since I find Eastern spiritualism so rich in interesting images, I use the word Guru to bring to mind a calm wisdom. In this scene I am in a room with a group of people, sitting in a circle. There are ideas flashing here and there, suprising and exciting thoughts and insights, and I quietly help the thinking, gently nudge, reflect and challenge. When I see this snapshot I feel good. I feel right. And I know this is the Aran I need to be in my work.

Littlefinger only has one image in his mind when he thinks about his future. But he’s a villain in a TV show which makes his life a little simpler. Now I have four images to work with so my rather less eloquent speech would go something like this:

Every time I’m faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same four pictures. Whenever I consider an action I asked myself – will this action help to make these pictures a reality, pull them out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. Pictures of me as a Beach Bod, a Warrior Monk, a Zen Dad and a Guru Coach.

OK, it’s not quite must see TV, but it works for me.

What about you?

  • Can you sum up your major goals in simple, powerful, emotionally meaningful snapshots?
  • Can you connect with these snapshots strongly enough that they can deeply move you now, changing what you choose to do?
  • How rich is your image of the future, metaphor, persona or literal?

I’d love to hear from you and happy to answer any questions you have about motivation, creativity, coaching and change.

Pity Isn’t Kindness

Last week I had an epiphany somewhere between Kings Cross and Russell Square. This moment was deeply emotional. I felt great relief, as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders. You see, I had realised, for the first time in my life, that I didn't need to solve all the problems in the world.

I should back up a little.

I don't know when it started. It may have been when I was a child and I realised that I got a lot of approval for being clever. Perhaps it was during my parents' divorce when it seemed to me that the world of grownups had let me down and only I, eleven year old me, could sort it all out. Because I was clever, you see.

Perhaps it came later. Perhaps it was a range of things. But I do recall feeling, for as long as I can remember, that somehow the world was a mess and that if only I was clever enough I should be able to fix it.

Writing this down it immediately seems absurd. No one person can fix the world. Absurd or not, this has been a feeling that has nagged at me. A pressure that I've put on myself – to always be the one with the answers.

This pressure has not been good for me. In fact, I realise now that it has been behind a lot of the fears that have dogged me. You see, the chain of wonky logic goes like this.

  • The world needs me to fix it
  • Therefore the world is filled with suffering people who are helpless
  • But I am not strong enough to fix the world
  • So maybe I'm just like them – helpless
  • I could end up like them… suffering and unable to fix it!
  • The world is scary and sad

I said the logic was wonky but it is logic, given the view of the world that I held in my head. This belief that all that stood between me and helpless suffering was blind luck kept me afraid, seeking to ignore the darkness in the world for fear that I was looking at my future.

But, you might be thinking, you're a coach! How can you be a coach and believe the world is hopeless? Isn't that antithetical? Well, yes. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is what has attracted me to the coaching concept. I think, deep down, the idea that this is a discipline that believes utterly in the ability of each person to fix his or her own problems, called to me because it's what I wanted to believe.

Perhaps it's because I've spent so long now actively working to build this new way of thinking that my epiphany came about. This is what happened.

I saw an advert. The advert was seeking low paid workers, filling unskilled jobs. And I felt a pang of sadness. I thought about people who were only able to get work like that. I thought about times in my life when I've had to take on work that was boring and poorly paid. And I felt pity for the people who still had to work these sorts of jobs, and with it a little twinge of fear; there but for the grace of god go I.

And then I remembered a comedy sketch, of all things, in which David Mitchell played a middle class man wracked with guilt every time he came into contact with someone he felt was in a demeaning or low prestige position. Robert Webb played said persons and the entire thing highlighted how unfair it was to think that way. To look at people with pity. I saw myself in that comedy sketch and I was ashamed.

Instead of just feeling ashamed, however, I asked myself what I could do about it. I decided to force myself to look at the people around me and instead of seeing all the potential pain, look at all the potential joy. So I looked and I tried to imagine everyone on the tube, everyone in the stations, everyone on the street, being OK.

I realised, when I let pity become my overarching emotions, that I was counting only the negative elements and that's why I felt so dark. But someone in a shitty job situation isn't just someone with a shitty job. That person has family and friends, interests and hobbies, can dance and play and hug and listen to music and read books. I realised that I was looking at the darkness and ignoring the light. What's more, someone who can hug and play and dance and love, that person can also think and hope and strive. Someone who is a full, rounded human, not just an object of pity, is empowered. That person doesn't need me to solve his or her problems. They just need me to believe in them.

And then something switched in my head. A moment of clarity and relief. Finally I had let go of my need to always be the hero. I'd stopped putting myself under that pressure and chosen, instead, to believe in people. That was my moment of epiphany. That was my breakthrough.

They say, when you learn to be a coach, that your first and most challenging client is always yourself. The more I continue on this journey the more I see that this is the case. I believe I'm a little different to the person I was last week. I believe this difference will help me to be a better coach, a better friend and a happier person. And every day I try to take a moment to remember this difference. Reminding myself of the moment, how it felt and what it meant.

Because, even though it looks quick from the outside, instant change always happens gradually and, despite the desire for clever tricks, making it stick is hard, but it isn't complicated.

Your One Track Mind

If someone tells you that you have a one track mind, it’s usually an insult. Which is very strange because it’s almost literally true that humans do indeed have one track minds.

Multitasking doesn’t exist. In fact, a good metaphor for what is really happening when we appear to be doing more than one thing at a time, is juggling.

By juggling we are able to keep more objects off of the ground for longer than we could if we simply tried to hold them all in our hands. But, crucially, we are only actually dealing with one object at a time (yes, I know that there are special juggles that involve simultaneously tossing multiple objects in the air – this is a metaphor). What we are doing isn’t multitasking, it’s quick task switching.

And it’s exhausting.

To illustrate, I’ll share some of my experiences from the recent weeks, during which I’ve been implementing the well known Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. In GTD there are five steps for productivity.

  1. Capture – whatever has your attention with minimal thought
  2. Clarify – whatever you have captured to understand what it means
  3. Organise – what you have clarified in accordance with that meaning
  4. Reflect – on everything in the system and consider what it requires of you
  5. Engage – with what requires your attention next

This system is simplicity itself. But, as with all Hard Not Complicated things, the challenge isn’t in understanding the concept, it’s in applying that concept in the real world.

In my case, I found that despite capturing things pretty solidly, my Next Actions list was becoming a time suck instead of a focusing tool. It was only yesterday that I realised why. I wasn’t separating steps four and five.

Reflect and Engage are separate steps for a reason. They require very different mental states.

Reflection asks us to think broadly, be open to the unexpected and ask hard questions. It works best in a cool state, removed from time pressure and the need for real world results. If I were to design the perfect scenario for reflecting, it would include someone else being present, my wife for instance, so I could ask her for input, probably take place in the evening when I tend to be more relaxed and prone to deeper thinking, be very unstructured with nothing else in my schedule in the immediate future. I might have a glass of wine on the go or be listening to some music in the background.

My mindset would be typified by an unhurried, unstructured, low-pressure, playful openness and my environment would adhere to that.

When I’m Engaging, I need quiet. I can’t write with noise going on, for instance. I usually don’t want anyone else around or, if they are around, they are there to provide specific assistance to me because in this state I don’t want advice and input, I have made up my mind and I now wish to do. This would usually be during the day, often in the morning. I would want structure, clarity and well defined goals with time limits.

My mindset, in this instance, would be narrowly focused, relatively closed to the unexpected and interested not in opening up but in closing down.

The Next Actions list is what you look at when you’re ready to Engage but because I had spent so little time Reflecting my actions weren’t properly developed. I found that each required me to stop Engaging and start Reflecting again. Back and forth, switching mental states. Keeping me endlessly in a suboptimal mindset.

It was exhausting.

Switching mental states is a mental cost. The more often you do it the higher the cost. This is true when it comes to applying GTD and when it comes to Creative Problem Solving.

Edward de Bono is famous for his Six Thinking Hats concept, sometimes referred to as Parallel Thinking. In this method groups more effectively collaborate by ensuring that they are thinking in the same way. If you’re doing open, possibilities thinking, that’s all you do until you switch to a new “hat”. No back and forth between possibilities and risks, data and opinion, etc.

This idea neatly demonstrates what happens in groups when you switch mental states but what many fail to realise is that the exact same thing takes place inside your head when you think. Sometimes we characterise this as an internal struggle or dealing with the various “voices” in our heads. In many ways we can see that this is just like working on a group and if all members of that group are not wearing the same hat, this will cause us to have to switch tasks repeatedly, each time paying the price.

Whether you’re trying to GTD, working on Creative Problem Solving in a group or solo, or just making the most of the time you have alone or with friends, being aware of the one track mind and both willing and able to stay on the same track is the single most powerful thing you can do to get more from every moment.

So now you know. Which is basically where this sort of thing normally stops. But if you know the Hard Not Complicated method you also know that knowing is nothing without doing. So what can you do?

  1. Be a single tasking absolutist – do one thing at a time, be absolutely aware of what it is and what it isn’t, and have a zero tolerance policy for anything else invading your headspace.
  2. Say no – if you’re clear on what you’re doing, you also have to be clear on what you’re not doing. So being a single tasker requires a lot of saying no. Even to things you might want to do. I find it helps to have a “someday maybe” list of things that I don’t want to say no to but I can’t say yes to.
  3. Manage your mind – when you find that your mind is working like a team you aren’t all wearing the same hat, it’s easy to try and pull rank, to try to control the mind. Let go of the urge. Instead, understand what is causing the different parts of your mind to want what they clearly want, and manage those needs.
  4. Meditate – i’ll keep banging this drum because I know that learning to still the mind, be aware of the present moment, and feel embodied emotions, is a powerful way to prevent distraction and conflict.

Begin by taking pride in doing one thing at a time. Realise that you can only be the best to you, when you’re being one single you at any single time.

This is how we do it

This is how we do it
This is how we do it

I think, at last, I’ve done it. OK. So it’s still just a basic pen sketch but this, after well over a year of trying, is a pretty damn good visual representation of the Hard Not Complicated method from Sabre Tooth Panda.

This weekend I was distracted a little by constant thoughts about mindfulness. Irony aside, it wasn’t clear to me exactly why this was. I’ve been meditating lately, no more or less than usual. I’ve not been reading much about it or talking to anyone. I don’t know why my mind was on my mind.

On Sunday evening, during a walk in the local park, I struck up a conversation with my wife about this feeling of distraction. I think, by that point, I’d realised that it was telling me something. I was stuck thinking about this because there was a thread I needed to keep pulling. I told my wife that I feel like I need to emphasise mindfulness more as an element of my process which lead us to discussing how we might showcase that visually.

That’s when Ladina suggested the Loop-de-Loop. With awareness, mindfulness, running from start to end, with practice, application and moments of change all driven by and part of a consistent state of awareness, suddenly the visualisation made sense!

When visualising a process it’s hard to show continuation at the same time as showing phases. It’s easy to make it seem as if there is a hard stop at the intersection between stage x and stage y. By creating a loop that twists around and intersects with itself we have finally found an image that clearly shows both clear stages and continuity.

And, in a fun sort of way, this breakthrough came as a result of applying the method I champion.

Distraction is a state in which many of us live every day. But we’re rarely aware of it. Being distracted, as I was this weekend, but aware of that distraction, was an element of my practice of mindfulness. I was able to ask why I was distracted, able to feel it and interact with it, because I practice what I preach.

Awareness leads to insight. Insight leads to a change in behaviour. A change in behaviour leads to a change in ability and reinforces new awareness and new insights.

By practicing mindfulness I achieved an insight which I was able to use. In a sense I simply allowed this solution to come to me by being ready to see it when it was ready to be seen. And by practicing drawing every day, as I have been, I was better able to think in visual terms and to render what I was thinking. This let me solve a problem that I have been stuck on for a long time.

The system works people. Use the system! And you can find out how here.

Storytelling and The Real World

One of the techniques I use with my clients is storytelling. Often this is seen as a good way to understand a business model or come to terms with a team dynamic. But for me the most powerful use of this exercise aligns with one of my core principles.

Creativity Happens Now

Having a strong relationship with creativity means a lot of things. It means applying a playful curiosity to life, expressing an attitude of generosity and selflessness, rejecting blame and promoting an environment of safety and tolerance; tolerance for change, ambiguity and conflict.

But all of these elements fall apart if we lack the presence of mind to apply the right behaviours at the right times. The right response five minutes too late is an empty victory.

This is where storytelling comes in.

The meaning of life

We live in a complex world. Stories are how we make sense of it. That’s why we write literature and tell tales. Stories are the map we use to navigate reality. As we go through our days, stories help us decide what things mean.

Meaning is the point.

Actions are triggered by stimulus. This is how cause and effect works. But humans don’t just respond to stimulus directly in the way that an unconscious substance reacts to another. Humans take information and turn it into meaning and then we respond to that. That’s why the same stimulus creates a different response under different circumstances. A tender kiss on the cheek from a loved one makes us feel good. A tender kiss on the cheek by a stranger on the bus… Not so much.

Meaning is the difference. And since stories help us decide what things mean it follows that more powerful stories help us to discern meaning more rapidly and more accurately when the moment comes.

Tell a better story

By getting better at storytelling we can equip ourselves with a powerful tool for guiding our own attention. If you consistently tell yourself stories, build rich mental models of the world you are moving through, you are more likely to notice things that are out of the ordinary.

Out of the ordinary things are frequently creative opportunities waiting to happen.

Richer stories also prevent a narrowing of focus or what psychologists call Cognitive Tunnelling; when focus narrows and we are unable to see anything but the most obvious information.

Non-obvious information is often the answer to a creative challenge.

Train your own internal narrator

When I was a kid I loved narrators in films and TV. They always knew what was going on and got to make snarky quips while remaining aloof from it all. Come to think of it, that probably explains a lot of my problems! But on the upside it meant that I would frequently imagine myself narrating my own day, telling stories in my head about what I was doing and what I was going to do.

This habit has stayed with me. I often play through conversations I am about to have or build rich scenarios in my head about potential futures. This richness of mental model helps me to notice the unexpected.

So if you think that storytelling is only for marketers, infant school teachers and the mid term planning meeting then I have news for you: storytelling is a tool that you can use every day and that you should use every day.

At Sabre Tooth Panda I offer storytelling workshops as part of the Hard Not Complicated method. Not only does it help solve immediate problems but, as part of a Daily Practice for creativity, storytelling can help us be present in the real world.

How to Ignore Almost Everyone

As social animals rejection by peers is one of the most violent acts that most of us ever experience. Think about it this way: humans evolved to survive through being part of a group. Rejection by the group you depend on is a death sentence. But like many evolved responses, modernity has found us with something that’s often as harmful as it is helpful.

This is one of the biggest problems that I face as a coach and as a businessman. Not to mention that, specifically when dealing with creativity, the need for broad acceptance and to not upset anyone is a major stumbling block. Today I’d like to share a personal anecdote on this topic, some musings about how I like to approach it and some advice on how you can learn to ignore almost everyone.

Years back, during my university days, I worked as an on street fundraiser for a large charity. Londoners called us Chuggers, a contraction of Charity Muggers, and it was, I will be honest, I tough job.

I believed in what I was doing. The charity I represented did good work and they needed supporters. Finding people willing to hand over a small amount every month was the most efficient and effective way of ensuring a steady, secure income to fund long term projects. But I completely understood that a lot of people didn’t like us. And, boy, did they show it!

When you’re busy, when you’re tired, when you just want to be left alone to get on with your day, being accosted by a neon-tabard wearing, relentlessly earnest and upbeat person who will remind you that for what you spent on coffee last week you could have saved three children from malaria, isn’t necessarily what you want.

On days when I found the work especially hard going my supervisor would say to me:

“We’re not here for the ones who say no. We’re here for the ones who say yes.”

This was a concept that I don’t think I fully understood at the time. But since coming becoming a coach I have grown to see the wisdom in it more deeply. I now find ways to apply it even when I’m not being ignored by headphone wearing commuters on a rainy day in Holborn.

Just this morning I had a conversation with my wife about my desire to share a blog post about a new project we’ve just begun work on. This project, which I will write about later this week, is hot off the mental press. We are in the pre-pilot phase, just getting going on rounding out the concept. I went into this discussion with the desire to share what we had now, excited to tell people about it. And I was surprised when Ladina objected.

After a brief back and forth to uncover the nature of her objections, get passed the emotion and to the nub of the issue, we discovered that part of her objecting was based on a fear was that people would see our half formed thoughts and judge us. She imagined an audience who would feel we were unprofessional, showing the workings of our minds and not offering a complete, polished product. It was at this point that I remembered my old supervisor’s advice.

“We are here for the ones who say yes…”

There’s a very old aphorism, written by a Benedictine Monk, no less; “You can please some of the people all of the time or all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. This aphorism predates modern communication technology by some 600 years or so. In the modern day it needs to be updated.

Today audiences are so huge that you can’t even please some of the people all of the time and you can certainly never please all of the people even a fraction of the time. What remains is the pithier modern truth: haters gonna hate.

In business, as in life, we are often encouraged to consider all views before making an informed decision. Balance, it seems, is the ideal. I don’t hold with this approach. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the vast majority of opinions are worse than useless.

If, when chugging, I considered the opinions of those who told me, often indelicately, to leave them alone, I would have concluded that what I was doing was a bad idea. For every yes we had to deal with a hundred solid rejections and even the not so rare act of verbal aggression. If I let the haters bother me I’d have packed up and gone home.

But then I wouldn’t have been there for the ones who said yes. Maybe, when you want to reach an audience, you need to be willing to ignore those who don’t want to hear you?

What Ladina and I discovered in our conversation was that it was entirely possible that some people would see us sharing some early thoughts and consider us premature and silly. But equally, some would see the same thing and consider us fast moving, exciting and smart. We had to decide if we were more concerned about the former or the latter.

In the end we realised that we are here for those who say yes. We are here for those who get us and like us. And it is far better to be loved by a few than mildly appreciated by the masses. So, in simple terms, screw the haters.

As a coach this is a challenge I see all the time. Many people worry not just about what people think but about what the wrong people think. We desire the approval of people who undermine us or ignore us while ignoring the support we receive from those who love and care for us. This is a big problem and I’d like to share some tips for dealing with it.

### Know Yourself, Choose Your Audience

The world is full of different people. Some of them will love you. Some of them may hate you. Many of them won’t give two shakes about you or anything you do. But perhaps the largest part will be quiet supporters, mildly in agreement with whatever it is you have to say.

The ones who matter most, are those who love you. And the best part is that you get to choose who they are! By being clear about what you stand for and who you want to serve, you can begin to shape what you say and do to properly represent you and really connect with the hearts and minds you want to find.

– Beware the Shoulds

When defining your values and being clear about who you wish to connect with, try beginning with some simple reflection. Allow yourself time for this and try breaking it up over several days to give space for deeper incubation. You will likely find that you begin not with real, personal values but with clichés. When writing down my company’s goals, for instance, I recall confidently stating that we wanted to “be recognised as an authority in our field” before realising that this wasn’t something I cared about at all. I care about helping my clients. Being recognised as an authority was something I thought I _should_ care about.

How will you know the difference?

### Meditate

I recommend daily meditation to everyone. I believe that allowing time for the mind to settle, learning to recognise thoughts, feelings, the existence of longing or distraction, fear or resistance, as they happen in the mind and the body, is the most powerful personal development that we can engage in. And it is only by becoming connected with embodied emotions that I find I can reliably figure out my real feelings about a given topic.

We are conceptual creatures by training, but we are sensual creatures by nature. Watch a small child interact with the world and he or she will constantly touch everything. It isn’t enough to know what something is, to label a chair a chair. No. The toddler wants to feel it. Know the texture and weight.

As we get older we are trained to think but never trained to feel. In fact we are often trained out of it by parents who demand that we “grow up” and a school system that only cares about what you know. But this is a mistake. It’s like listening to only one channel of a song played in stereo. Without the second half we can’t properly understand what is being shown to us.

Emotions are an ancient guidance system that we have mostly forgotten how to read. When I removed “seen as an authority” from my company goals I did so on the basis of a niggling emotion. By investigating that feeling I was able to spot what was wrong. Had I not trained myself to do so perhaps I would have misunderstood the signal my mind was giving me, pushed on with something that was wrong because I was more able to interpret the conceptual data that shapes what we believe we _should_ want. Similarly, when faced with anxiety about a big event I was planning, it was only through investigating those emotions I was able to see that I wasn’t pulling back because I didn’t want to do what was planned. My anxiety was driven by a fear about resources, being able to pay for everything that was needed.

Learning to “search your feelings” as the Jedi would say, is powerful stuff. And it doesn’t require any complicated knowledge. Begin by sitting quietly and counting your breaths in and out. Watch what happens as the mind settles.

### Remove Yourself

Have you ever had a relationship end with the words “it’s not you, it’s me”? According to TV and film almost everyone has. And as trite as it sounds, it’s sort of true.

A better expression of the sentiment might be “it’s not you, it’s this” where “this” is whatever is brought about by the current state of both parties and their situation. You see, humans are complex and when two or more complex things interact, the result is even more complexity.

In a complex system you can’t point at one thing and say that this thing, this element, is to blame or to praise for anything that has happened. The definition, if you want to get technical, of a complex system is one in which the end results cannot be predicted by the initial state. In other words, cause and effect exist, we just can’t really be sure what they are.

For our purposes, this means you can and should remove yourself from the equation when you consider what people say to and about you. Remember, criticism of you may well not be really about you, you’re just the closest thing they have to a clear cause.

This also goes for praise. Someone who understands that he or she is just one tiny moving part, a complex and ever changing moving part, in a hugely more complex system, knows that all you can do is your best and know that all praise comes with some luck and all criticism comes with misfortune.

– Know Who to Ignore

Finally, in this quick lesson on how to ignore almost everyone, it helps to have some neat heuristics or rules of thumb to follow when considering who you should ignore and who you should listen to.

1. Love trumps hate: as stated above, you should care a great deal about those who love you. We have a tendency to over remember negative comments. Some find that simply journaling anything positive anyone has said and reviewing those comments daily or weekly helps to redress the balance and prime us to hear and see more positive feedback.
2. Skin in the game: perhaps my favourite heuristic comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb who notes that you can safely ignore the input of anyone who isn’t actually doing what you’re doing or in some direct way involved in it. That is to say, sideline commentators, busybodies and armchair experts who know just enough to sound impressive but, in reality, know nothing. If someone criticises you, ask how they are involved. If they aren’t, ignore them.
3. Know your troupe: there are some people who don’t have skin in the game and may not be huge fans of what you’re doing or saying but will support you because they are part of your troupe. That’s the terminology used by Prof Steve Peters in The Chimp Paradox to describe how primitive elements of our brain think about what some might call their best friends, family or, if you’re down with the kids, squad. So remember to always ask, of anyone, are they in your troupe? If they’re not, then they may not have your best interests at heart. If they are, then you’ll probably want to listen to them even if you don’t like what they say. But remember, if they don’t have skin in the game their input may be emotionally driven and based on bad data. So listen to them, but don’t let them make decisions for you.

### Remember You’re Not Perfect and Be OK With That

I’m not perfect. The desire to be universally approved of and praised is, with that in mind, unrealistic and crushing. So it helps to be OK with being imperfect. This is powerful stuff if done right. This is a mantra you may wish to use.

– Yesterday I made mistakes
– I accept myself
– Today I will make mistakes
– I accept myself
– Tomorrow I will make mistakes
– I accept myself

It may seem silly, even trite, but the fact is that the above is true and, if we don’t accept ourselves for our flaws we will be unable to move past them.

That doesn’t mean you take leave of all responsibility. It simply means you realise that you have always been and will always be fallible and that is OK.

Sometimes I look at my past and I shudder at the things I’ve said and the person I have been. But then I remember that I was just an imperfect guy trying to be the best person I could be. Remembering that I have empathy for my past self. I find that I can forgive Aran of the past and, in doing so, I can forgive Aran of the present and put less pressure on Aran of the future.

## Conclusion

This is your life. You only get one (as far as I know) and whatever you do you will make mistakes and end up upsetting some people. So be bold and make sure that your mistakes are your own, that if you upset people it’s for something you really believe in and for which you are willing to accept the consequences. When you come to your final days, you can honestly say that your imperfect self was at least perfectly yours. Or, as Frank said:

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way