Mental illness: A cause or effect of changes in the brain?

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As a graduate of the ever evolving field of Neuroscience, who has since committed their professional life to mental health work, the inevitable link between the two areas has cropped up in discussions more times than I count. It’s a connection I can’t help but think about, given that the potential implications are so far-reaching.

The current drug treatment model is largely based on the assumption that if you remove the associated neurological changes i.e. changes in the level of various chemicals in the brain, then you also remove the problem. Increasingly often this is being paired with more holistic therapeutic techniques such as CBD, and this dual approach is one I certainly see as being more effective.

However, what if the actual underlying problem that has caused someone to become ‘mentally ill’ is far deeper, and by treating the neurological symptoms you’re thereby missing out on areas of their history or lifestyle that, if ignored, will only lead them to return to this unpleasant psychological state. It’s a possibility that would potentially completely undermine the current medical model, and yet this line of thought is continuing to gather momentum.

Based on my experience of mental illness – both personally and of the many people I’ve met, and my time spent studying the brain (somewhat ironically, in between killing my own brain cells with alcohol, like a true student) I’ve come to my own conclusions on it and it’s something I’d like to share, especially in the context of how we approach helping people who are psychologically distressed. At this point I’d like to throw in a couple of key points that will impact upon the context of the rest of this piece.

1. This is not a scientific article, and nor is it intended to be. It’s a blog. There is a great deal of literature and research out there, but I’ve chosen not to reference it here. This is part because I’ve seen how exceptionally competent scientists are at failing to explain their conclusions to the average member of the public, and partly because…well it takes a bloody age. I’m just going to provide an outline and I’ll leave it up to you if you really want to look it up (there’s a ton of stuff out there). Otherwise you’ll just have to take my word on the sciencey-stuff and assume I’m not just making stuff up for kicks.

2. I’m using the term ‘mental illness’ and associated disorders such as ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety disorder’ because they are widely understood. For the record, it’s not language I actively promote because of the negative associations it creates, and I’m also not a fan of grouping such varied symptoms and personal differences in to the narrow categories currently used. The mind is a tad too complex for that. But that’s a whole other topic…

So let me start by saying that there is a well-established link between mental illness and abnormalities in the brain, which has been accepted for several decades. There’s not really any argument about this. Which part of the brain, however, has caused a great deal of dispute. A chemical named dopamine was once thought of as the ‘happy’ or ‘pleasure’ chemical of the brain (what a revelation that would be!), but this theory has since been disproved. Modern research in to depression has brought a lot of attention to a chemical named serotonin, and led to the advent of a popular drug type called ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors’, which is indisputably catchy.

The point I’d like to make here, is that the brain is not so simple that one chemical is assigned to one particular function, such as mood in this context of this blog. Physical and psychological changes are brought about by changes in levels of neurological chemicals in relation to one another, and it also entirely depends on which area of the brain these changes are occurring in. We have a series of chemicals that can either inhibit or stimulate a chemical pathway, and depending on the brain network, an inhibitory chemical could have completely opposite effects on your mood in two differing areas of the brain. Are you beginning to see how damn complex it is? So even if you’re changing serotonin levels, you need to target a very low percentage of those serotonin pathways to have the desired effect. The shotgun effect, which is seen in every drug treatment, produces a whole range of responses to the drug – both good and bad.

What you may also start to realize from this, is that no two brains are identical – quite the opposite. The design of the pathways in your brain and your level of chemicals is completely unique – which is one of the few things I can say with certainty in this commentary. You can imagine the headaches researchers get when trying to draw conclusions about mental health when looking at large samples of people who are all presenting different results.

I’ve spoken with many people who have shared their experiences of drug treatment for a mental illness with me and a few common themes have come out. Firstly, that they may have to try a few different types of medication before they find one that works. Secondly, that they often feel worse to begin with before they start to notice an improvement. Thirdly, the dreaded dependency effect.

What became apparent through my experience of depression, and many others I’ve spoken with who have experienced ‘mental illness’ is that there is a cause, and a trigger. Some of us are genetically more susceptible, but life experience plays a big role. There’s a bigger picture here. And our brains have not evolved to just ‘imbalance’ and cause us to become mentally ill. Doing so is maladaptive.

One of the biggest realizations in the field of neuroscience in the 20th century was that the brain remains plastic for its entire life i.e. it continues to change, develop and adapt. This happens throughout our lives. And these are potentially fairly considerable changes too. And even on a daily basis, there are notable changes. A moment of excitement , of disappointment, a spark of happiness…they all cause a change in the brain. It’s absolutely plausible that events in our life that are too much for us emotionally can have strong, and potentially long-lasting effects on the brain. In fact, it would be completely counterintuitive for someone who is depressed to not demonstrate some notable changes in their brain.

I feel that current attitudes and the medical model fit with our way of western thinking – to find a quick fix and put the cause as being out there somewhere. The fact that we can actually be the biggest drivers of change in our own lives is an intimidating and, often, ignored concept.

I believe we need to depend less on the medical model, accept how different people are and understand that each experience of mental illness is unique so it can’t be treated the same way. Rather, it should be treated holistically, with drug treatment only if so severe they can not manage their everyday life or are very high risk.

What I’d also like to mention, is that sometimes changes we make in terms of what we put in to our bodies could trigger these changes in the brain. A different diet, drug treatment for a physical problem, the contraceptive pill…these can all lead to changes in the our chemical balance and lead to mood or personality disorders.

Where it gets very blurred and unclear for me is in some of the severe cases of mental illness, such as with bipolar disorder or forms of schizophrenia. My conclusions don’t extend to this – partly due to lack of evidence, knowledge or experience. The strike me as being more long-term, with possibly more of an underlying neurological dysfunction and thus drug treatment has more of a role. The brain is so incredibly complex, and we’re learning more all the time.

Whether these changes in the brain are definitively a cause or symptom of emotional and psychological distress, or even a combination of both, remains unclear, and it’s likely that it varies depending on the situation. What is clear given the huge implications, is that like all things related to mental health, we need to talk to get it out in the open and explore it from the point of view of what will be the best for people.

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The marvelous powers of intuition

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I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. After receiving a surprisingly hostile automated email from the UNSW library informing me that I had to return it by Monday, I quickly finished it off over the weekend. Writing a review seemed like an appropriate and logical action to take afterwards, but as I began to shape that review in my head I noticed a strong theme imbued within that review; intuition against logic. And so appropriately, I’m taking the intuitive route, and constructing this piece of writing around that theme.

To set the tone, have a read of the following quote from Jobs I’ve picked out about his return to America after a year-long trip to India:

“Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.”

The way that Jobs used and trusted his intuition throughout his life completely gripped me. It seems entirely incongruous that you could shape a huge commercial enterprise, based initially around computers of all things, largely on one man’s intuition and instincts, rather than the power of analysis. Many of Jobs’ most incredible breakthrough products came about because he sensed the need for them before others – or saw the opportunity to do them as they should be done. iTunes, iPod, iPhone, the early Macintosh….to name a few.

The process of delivering these products was not based on spreadsheets, financial forecasts or market trends. It was instinctive. He infamously declared market research to be useless, stating that you couldn’t research what people wanted, because you hadn’t shown them it yet. Many of Apple’s marketing techniques were counter to what people expected from the industry. But they really, really worked.

Jobs often had such a precise vision of how things ought to look and feel, and would force people to redesign over and over again until it was just perfect. Often he would struggle to explain it, or give reason to the need for those changes. But as soon as it was right he knew.

There are similarities with Branson, who again explains that many of his best decisions were instinctive. Whenever Virgin was struggling, they would make a bold and risky move based as much on intuition than reason, and it got them out of some enormous holes.

I’ve grown up – as have, I believe, most around me – with the view that reason and logic can conquer all. The notion that you could instead (and dare I say it, would be better off doing so) rely on those things called feelings in order to make decisions and solve problems took me some time to get my head around. Certainly I’ve come to trust my intuition a lot more, and it’s served me very well. Even when it leads to in to a mess, I know that I’m learning and it will get better for it.

Recently, I wrote about mentally healthy living, and the importance of starting with acceptance and awareness of our feelings – as well as how deficiency in these areas can lead to mental illness. This is a kind-of-follow-up to that blog. I hope to illustrate in later blogs that on the other end of the spectrum there are those who are very finely tuned in to their instincts and that their trust in their intuition is so strong that it can lead them to make the right decision when the tide of ‘rational’ opinion is against them. That’s not to say that they don’t ever make mistakes, but doing so actually improves their instincts, rather than puts them off using them.

When I was studying Neuroscience, we had a module on decision-making. A fascinating theme emerged from the research; that even when people make impulsive decisions they do not recognize that this is so. They dress them up in logic and reason, when their actual motive was instinctive. Sometimes the logic was amusingly flawed, and yet they were convinced of it.

Intuition and instinct do have a big part to play in the modern world – bigger, perhaps, than society currently acknowledges. I think forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, can really facilitate these attributes. It’s a huge subject and I’ve barely even scraped the surface of it here, but I hope it’s piqued a little interest. Plus, if Einstein digs intuition (what a man), then it’s got to have some value.

So go and be more instinctive! Put that pesky voice of reason aside and see what happens.

Social entrepreneurship: Breaking down the myths

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I enjoyed reading this article. The Guardian have been pretty active over the last few years with the growth of social enterprise, so it’s little surprise to see that articles like this have found a home with them. I strongly agree with that David Floyd says about the ‘cult’ of the social entrepreneur (and it being potentially harmful), although the article loses its way a bit towards the end and unfortunately doesn’t explore the suggestions that different personalities and characters are required to initiate and sustain social change.

My agreement with what the author says about the concept of the ‘heroic social entrepreneur’ partly stems from the fact that I myself got caught up in the hype of it, and have only recently started to gain perspective.

For me, and I think many others who go down this route, the interest stems from how you could have a positive social impact on a bigger scale. I had already learned how to do so on a local community level, but spreading this wider required a different set of tools. I was already aware of the charity model, but had seen how poor organisational skills and sustainability thinking had led many of these to spend a great deal of time chasing up funding to survive, rather than having impact.

And so the term ‘social enterprise’ kept cropping up everywhere – the idea of an organisation with a social mission that if well-run is as efficient and effective as a successful corporate business. And guess what, there were plenty of organisations out there proving that this works. “Well”, I thought, “that sound ruddy marvelous!” (exact thought process may have sounded less like a 1930s Briton).

So If I’m going to set up one of these ‘social enterprise’-y things, what does that make me exactly? This wasn’t really a career path I had read about in school. And then I began to encounter the term ‘social entrepreneur’. This did not mean entrepreneurs who happen to be sociable people, but rather people building/running organisations with a social mission. There were evidently a lot of these people about, and there also seemed to be a lot of hype around them.

At times it’s presented as though these people hold the key to solving all the world’s problems. Sadly, the hype goes to the head of some of those people doing great things in the world. An easy thing to happen. I’ve not yet grown comfortable with the way that some people will lavish praise upon you when you tell them you’re setting up a not-for-profit (any tips?). And yet most of us who choose this route do so because we find it incredibly rewarding and are passionate about our work.

What turns me off is the way some ‘social entrepreneurs’ see being a social entrepreneur as an end itself. I’ve been guilty of this too at times. But it’s not; it’s a set of tools and mindset that enables you to create change, and that change is the bottom line. For some people that change is in isolated communities, for others it’s in poverty-stricken areas, for someone else it’s about youth development. For me it’s about student mental health. I chose ‘social entrepreneurship’ because it stood out to me as the best path through which I could really impact that area. It’s been very refreshing to regain perspective on that.

To go back to the first paragraph, creating and sustaining change does require a range of characters. The social entrepreneur plays a key role, especially in providing the initial drive to get an organisation off the ground. But there are other pieces of the puzzle – one person can’t do and know everything. A good accountant, an investor, advisors, techy…The development of an organisation requires the talents and efforts of a whole team, and the acclaim should be shared out equally – not just centred around one person.

What I’m also learning is that building and maintaining require quite different characters and skillsets. Some people are more suited to the former, others the latter. The visionary can help provide the initial spark to give a new project life, but may not be suited to running its day to day operations once things have calmed down.

I’ll round off by saying that I believe anybody can create change. I’ve seen hundreds of student volunteers amaze themselves by having an impact upon the mental health and wellbeing of their fellow students. Motivation and attitude are most important, you can pick up the skills as you go along.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a social entrepreneur, writer, politician. These are all just enablers. The bottom line is simple: what impact are you having?

Meditation: Why bother?

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Following on from my writing about the importance of psychological awareness; acknowledging our feelings, understanding what triggered them and ultimately using that to drive our decisions, I realized I had to tie in the role an activity that facilitates this entire process. Meditation.

Although I had been doing guided meditation for a few months before leaving the UK, it was only when I got to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand that I really understand the benefits of it. I had generally understood the objective of meditation to simply be calmness – very useful in itself for those caught up in the fast-paced western world.

The retreat I stayed at practiced a technique called Vipassana meditation, also understood as ‘insight meditation’. The aim is much greater awareness and understanding of all sensations that your body perceives; especially touch, sound and sight. You develop the ability to observe each of these sensations, and in time, even to observe your thoughts in the same way – observing all these different sensations at once you are practiced enough.

The whole experience was so tremendously….well, insightful, but I’m going to keep the focus on emotional awareness. As you improve and develop (which does happen when you’re practicing 8 hours a day), you notice the way that your attention is immediately drawn to any new sensation. It could be a bird singing, or an ant crawling up your leg (we were in the middle of forest, so this happen almost constantly). And as this new stimulus arrives, there’s an almost immediate emotional reaction in your body. If it’s a sound you find soothing, you feel a calmness in your body. If it’s a sound that could be dangerous, you feel an edginess. I couldn’t help tying this back to my studies and the neurological underpinnings of the flight or flight response.

This in itself isn’t especially surprising. It’s fascinating to be able to experience this with such focus, but it’s the next stage of learning where the insight starts to come. As I said, in time you can observe your thoughts in a similar way to sounds or sights. And much the same, thoughts can be quite random. I was amazed at how disconnected and jumpy they would be. At one moment a memory a conversation would jump in, ten seconds later I’d think of family, and then it would be breakfast. You wonder just how much processing is going on without your being consciously aware at any one time, and how the brain chooses what to make you aware of and what not.

By adding thoughts to the mix, you can observe their emotional effect on the body in much the same way. So as the thought of my parents came along, I would feel strong warmth. A memory of a break up, and I’d feel tense. Food…well that would be terribly exciting. The response is instantaneous and completely natural. There’s no time for logic or analysis to interfere.

The few examples I’ve just listed seem obvious, but when you’re unsure of a decision, then this process becomes very valuable. At this point in my travels I had grown pretty weary, and wanted something less superficial than brief friendships with other travelers and spending no more than a week in each place. I had no idea what an alternative might be though. When the thoughts of more travel came along, my body instantly felt heavy. Instead, when I thought of settling in one place for a few weeks, of trying to look at a place through the eyes of a local and not a tourist, I immediately experienced excitement. This was counter to my own logic and the advice I was getting from nearly everyone I spoke to about. Logic told me I should be seeing as many countries as possible, and sticking to my original well-thought out plan. I followed my instincts, spent a few weeks working in Singapore almost entirely in the company of locals and it stands out as one of the highlights of my trip.

I began paying attention to all sorts. What I felt when I thought of certain people, places, activities and came away with a very clear vision of how I would like my life to look once I settled down in Sydney. I was able to project in to the future, and predict very accurately how these different features would make me feel.

A lot of people I speak seem to be very disconnected from how they’re feeling; unable to understand what causes them to feel sad or happy. They keep repeating the same actions that produce a negative response in them, and then producing logic to justify it. Often their body language will be in contradiction to what they’re saying, but we’ve learned to pay more attention to words and reasoning than to these signs. We’ve forced experiential wisdom in to the backseat.

I don’t dispute the value of reason and logic, but I don’t doubt that we’ve come to lean on it too much at the expense of our intuition. For me, this certainly contributes to the high levels of mental illness we see in western cultures, and the staggering number of people who admit to feeling dissatisfied with their lives.

The rise of eastern philosophy and spirituality suggests that I’m not alone in feeling that perhaps it’s time to redress this imbalance.

Why ‘acceptance’ is fundamental to mentally health living

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The question of what mental health really means stimulated a lot of cranking of brains and conversation at the recent ThinkActChange meetup. For too long it’s been synonymous with mental illness, and for many there is still no distinction between the two. It’s something we’ve worked to change through student groups, because as long as this misunderstanding persists, there will still be a lot of fear around discussing the topic, and a great many people who don’t seek out the support they need as a result.

Take the parallel with physical health. Physical health is not necessarily associated with having a cold, or fracturing an ankle, or god forbid, breaking a nail. It’s about wellness and proactive maintenance of good physical health. We achieve this through nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep. But as soon as you mention mental health, the association is immediately with depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia… There is, however, another side to it.

It’s when you start really exploring this other side that the answers become more challenging. There’s been so little interest in what it is that keeps us mentally healthy, with psychology for years predominantly researching why and how abnormalities occur – and then how they can be fixed. How they could be prevented, and that they can be prevented is a line of thought only recently gathering momentum. If you’re interested then take a look at the growing field of positive psychology. Shawn Achor’s ‘The Happiness Advantage’ is an insightful read, and will probably benefit the way you live your life.

I found myself pretty stumped when asked what it means to be mentally healthy, which surprised me as a lot of our work through students has featured the methods we promote for staying mentally healthy. One of the panel made a great suggestion, which is that it is about understanding your mind and the way you’re feeling, and being able to handle – with the support of those around you – the inevitable bumps that life delivers.

For me this is where it all begins, with acceptance. And accepting how you really, genuinely feel is something I don’t think many of us are good at. It’s much easier when we’re happy, but no matter how mentally healthy you are, you won’t always feel happy. That’s unrealistic, and not how we’re wired. Nonetheless, we like to give off that impression – to show people how awesome our lives are. How many people’s Facebook profile photos are of them smiling? Biologically, we’re more drawn to people who give off that happy vibe, so it makes sense that we try to give off this persona. But at times that just means that you’re pretending – to others and to yourself.

When someone is struggling emotionally, we’ve identified that the first thing that must happen in order for that individual to start tackling the issue that’s causing those feelings, is to simply acknowledge that they are struggling. That they’re not happy. That they feel really, really miserable and it sucks. And there will be many times in our lives that we do feel that way, and in every case there’s a good reason for it.

Acceptance also benefits us in the long run. I believe that we all have good natural instincts, but that in many people these are curbed over time by fear, social expectations or an over-reliance on logic. And the less you trust those natural instincts, the less reliable they become – because they’re not having a chance to learn and develop. We’re also neurologically wired to learn that way. Our brains are exceptional at being able to project a possible course of action in to the future and from there determine whether we should pursue this action or choose another. And how does the brain learn? Through experience, of course.

By accepting how a situation or outcome makes us feel, and not pretending it makes us feel the way we want it to make us feel, we can learn and hone our instincts. Now when you find yourself in a similar situation, you instinctively know how that previously used action will make you feel. If it’s positive, you’ll probably repeat it. If not, you probably won’t. And you can’t get around that with logic. Reframing a situation you’re uncomfortable with will only get you so far. If it’s a job that makes you feel miserable, you can’t think your way around that and the self-denial will then hinder your instincts in other areas. You’re in danger of not really having a clue what does and doesn’t make you feel good, and that now sounds like a very confusing life to live.

I wouldn’t proclaim this as hard evidence, but I’ll throw in a little anecdote as I always find them helpful to illustrate a point. Towards the end of my fourth week in Sydney I found myself feeling flat, unmotivated and pretty frustrated. I was convinced that moving to Sydney and the Student Minds Project here would be very exciting – my projections in to the future left me with no doubt about this, and up until now they had been spot on.

I tried to think my way out of it, and not even the splendor of the Blue Mountains could help with that. Finally on Sunday evening I accepted that I really was feeling genuinely miserable, and then began to explore why. I spoke with a couple of people about it, and a couple of realizations then dawned on me (in this case it was to do with not having enough variety in my life, and not knowing people well enough here). From there I switched my focus to spending more time getting to know people, acknowledged that good friendships do take time to build, and started to pursue a couple of other projects I’m interested in. The few days that followed have been a big improvement, and my instincts are a little better as a result of this learning experience.

For myself and for many others who have shared their experiences openly, part of the experience of depression is anhedonia; a flatness of emotion. I had so little notion of how a course of action would make me feel that decision-making became terribly difficult.

Even as I recovered I became very self-protective against negative emotions and developed a tendency to block them out. It pains me to admit, but it’s taken me several years to reach the same level of trust in my feelings and intuition that I had before I became depressed. It’s a huge personal challenge to expose yourself to your whole emotional spectrum again in the knowledge that it includes the misery you once experienced every day. But without accepting those feelings exist, you’re shutting off parts of what’s inside you. For me, I’ve come to realize that I know and understand the depths of my own emotion, and developed a comfort in my ability to handle it. At times I notice certain feelings, that if ignored and allowed to fester could lead me down the route again. The difference is now I acknowledge them and act on them quickly.

To be mentally healthy, I believe you must start by accepting – to yourself, and then to others – how you feel at any one time. Don’t put on a face. Because if it’s a feeling that you don’t want to become a common theme, by acknowledging it you can then take action in your life to reduce the likelihood of it coming up. Your brain is wired to help you out with that. And it works with positive feelings too – by being more tuned in to them, you can then repeat the actions that brought them about, which could be anything – grabbing coffee with a friend, listening to a piece of music, or picking weeds (hey, I’m not judging). And you don’t need to take a university course to acquire this ability; it’s hard-wired in to the brains of every single one of us.

How about we begin making the most of this gift.

Going through the phases of expat life

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So I’ve been in my new home, Sydney, for coming up to two months now. I’ve been preparing for this move for so long that I arrived already with a clear idea of people I wanted to meet (even some meetings already in place), organisations and projects I wanted to look in to, places in the city I wanted to visit. I knew about suburbs that even people living in Sydney didn’t have a clue existed, and I even had an ‘Arrival Action Plan’ to guide me through my transition.

Two months have shot by in a blur of faces, places and awesome opportunities, and I’ve spent much of it sporting a stupid smile reminiscent of a cheshire cat (the cute pink one, not this more distburbing one), marvelling at how brilliant it all seems. Of course, it’s had it’s really tough moments; times when you miss friends and family and aware of the fact that you hardly know anyone yet, which can get pretty lonely. But I expected that and have accepted those dips when they’ve happened – I’m a lot more ok these days with the lows of life when they happen and realise their important place in life’s unpredictable ride (blog on this coming soon…). The overall feeling I’m left with is that these two months have been even better than I had imagined, and all that planning for this stage has paid off in a big way. I’ve been riding the crest of a big, salty, Bondi wave – something I’m not yet capable of doing literally, but I’ve got quite a good handle on those more metaphorical waves.

And then last weekend something unexpected happened; I had a real dip in energy and enthusiasm, and didn’t know what to do next. As you might imagine, this felt… more than mildly confusing and disorientating. After two months of having really clear direction, I suddenly couldn’t tell left from right. It was confusing. And disorientating. Is this painting a clear picture of how confused and disorientated I was?  I do hope so, because that’s the real take-home message here I don’t want to repeat those words anymore.

Once I accepted these feelings, I then began to gain an insight in to what was causing them. Firstly, I had gone pretty full-on at the whole getting-settled-in-to-my-new-life thing, and actually it had been pretty exhausting. Secondly, for all my planning and ‘arrival action plan’ master schemes, I hadn’t looked beyond the landing phase. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounded whether we could get the project rolling, and about what my life here would look like, so I hadn’t dared look too far ahead. Now that’s been taken care of, I enter a very different phase. I’m looking at 6 or 12 months down the line, and putting together an image of how I want that to look. The first two months have been characterised by novelty and adventure, but the next six won’t be to the same extent.

What really interested me, was a conversation with a friend and colleague of mine here in Sydney, who upon hearing my experience explained that she went through almost identical phases when she first moved to China as an expat. There’s so much to take in when you first arrive, but once it calms down you’re faced with the challenge of figuring out where to invest your energy in the long-term with regards to projects, people, hobbies… I’m fortunate that Sydney has a plethora of awesome projects, people and activities. But now I need to consider where to focus and what’s most important to me over the next year. The decisions I make at this stage will have strong consequences for me over the next twelve months. So I’m not rushing them…

Whatever decisions I make one thing is clear.

I have to learn to surf.

The entrepreneurial craze: Driving a new-look modern life?

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Since I started spending more time with these somewhat eccentric, entrepreneurial types, a certain trend became very apparent. Irrespective of how well their companies are going, or what stage they’re at, they’re buzzing with life and energy. They apply the same passion and enthusiasm to other areas outside of their work, giving you the feeling that they’re incredibly engaged with their life – every day of the week. It’s infectious.

More and more people seem to be taking up this new way of life (graduate entrepreneurship in the UK is on the rise). But why? It’s high-risk, goes against nearly everything we’re taught growing up, you work crazy hours and offers seemingly little stability (who would try to start a company during a recession!?). Not a great career choice, huh?

Let’s have a look at the typical route through modern life first. It goes a little like this:

  1. Go to school, work hard and develop a good work ethic. Earn good grades to get in to a better university.
  2. Work hard at university, get a good degree, get on the career ladder in a field you want to work in.
  3. Spend the rest of your life working up the career leader to get a bigger paycheck so you can buy a bigger a house, a shinier car and have a fancier wedding.
  4. Teach your kids how to repeat.

Is it just me, or does that sound a bit dull? Not only does it sound like less fun than a Justin Bieber concert, but it also doesn’t really work anymore. My generation is struggling to complete step 2. There are far more graduates than there are jobs available, and most employers will pick experience over youthful enthusiasm.

Increasingly, I’m seeing people fruitlessly searching for jobs or getting unexpectedly laid off. This reality of the stable, settled life is being shaken up. Cracks are appearing and spreading in its foundations, slowly but inevitably. I’d argue that stability and security nowadays is more dependent on our own adaptability than it ever has been before. There are so many changes taking place, and the global financial crisis has truly shaken things up. I can’t see the 21st century becoming much more settled either, the world faces a great challenge and uncertainty.

This modern life hardly inspires passion either. I’ve always felt depressed when I’ve looked at that route, partly because I can’t bear the thought that I already know what the rest of my life looks like. I’m not the only one. Where’s the adventure? Where’s the purpose? The challenge? The surprises? You will be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t like more of these things in their life. It’s hard to put my finger in, but in the UK I gradually picked up on a growing feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration people had with their lives.

A friend of mine, Avis Mulhall, recently appeared in the Irish times to share her story. Particularly poignant for me was this quote from her interview: “I was earning between €120,000 and €130,000, I was in a long-term relationship, we had two houses and two cars, and I thought: ‘Is this it?’” That sounds pretty impressive for someone yet to hit 30, but Avis was far alone in experiencing that ‘Is this it?’ feeling.

It’s created a huge demand and market for these magic quick-fix solutions. Because that’s we’ve learned to look for in our hurried lives.  I see so many ads along the lines of ‘Find your life purpose in THIRTY SECONDS!’ Wow, perfect! I can squeeze that in during the X-Factor advert break AND boil the kettle. Splendid.

But it’s a little harder than that to build a life that you live with purpose and that gives you fulfillment. It takes months or even years, depending on how settled you already are. It requires a full-on change of attitude and way of thinking, not just small tweaks.

What I’ve seen in entrepreneurs, particularly those that are driven by good causes, is that they’ve managed to crack this. They’ve found a life in which they feel engaged and in the moment every day of every week. They love their work, and it makes everything else – travel, relationships, music…all taste a little sweeter. They’re a little more tuned in to all that life offers – whether it be joy or sadness. There’s no such thing as a weekend off and it’s hard to make ends meet (you manage, though), but it’s completely worth it, and you get to take complete charge of your own life. It’s awesome.

Compared to your average employee, these individuals seem so much more excited about their lives. Hardly surprising when you’re allowed to be creative, to contribute to something bigger than yourself and make the seemingly impossible a reality.

I don’t know whether this increase in entrepreneurship will continue, but more awareness of it as viable life choice will hardly do any harm. I really hope we’ll see more people rejecting the notion of spending 5 days a week for the rest of their lives doing an activity they don’t enjoy or believe in (sounds exhausting to me), and doing this to pursue aspirations of consumerism that bring little more than temporary fulfillment. Whilst I wouldn’t proclaim everyone go out, leave their jobs and try to start up a business, I do think a bit more of an entrepreneurial attitude could go a long way.

I hope we’ll see more people rejecting the status quo, the fear of judgement, of failure and chase whole-heartedly after their dream.

Because we all have one, don’t we?

“Once a man crosses the abyss that separates him from his dream, there is no going back.”

– Unknown

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