Why investing in ourselves is pretty important…

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As it so happens, I’ve been reading a lot of pop psychology recently on how to become a more effective, productive, world-conquering superperson. Some of it’s been pretty insightful, some…less so. And well, it’s driven me to take a punt at producing some myself, hopefully of at least average quality. Just to ensure it doesn’t become a cheesy pop psych post, I’ve added a completely irrelevant off-topic picture to the blog. Aww the kitten is kinda cute though right?

Anyway, there happens to be one topic that has been especially on my mind recently, and came up in conversation with Vibewire’s Omar Samad earlier today. So…

Now take a moment to immerse yourself in this masterfully constructed scenario – I came up with this all by myself. It’s a Sunday evening, you’ve just looked in your diary and you’ve got a really busy week ahead. Your heart starts pounding away and you’re probably thinking, “Ah…*expletive*, how the heck am I going to survive this?” – or thoughts to a similar effect. Nice.

Well the default answer is probably to see what you can cancel (that tennis game with Bob can wait right? And Sandra will still want to go out for a movie with you next week…), sleep less and drink more caffeine, buy meals rather than cook them, trim down on some more sleep, drink some more caffeine. Awesome, ready to boss it.

I’ve noticed that when our schedules fill up, the first things that go are the activities such as exercise, getting fresh air, time with friends/family, meditation, reading… and that anything deemed fun or relaxing is UNNECESSARY AND MUST BE DESTROYED IMMEDIATELY. It seems that we lose the ability to look after ourselves properly when we know we’ve got a lot to get on with, or just forget the importance of doing so.

We don’t make time for the simple things that keep us going. But it’s these that help us tick over and allow us to work at a high level. We need to make that personal investment in order to then give out. I mean this on a daily basis (keeping yourself topped up) and also on a long-term basis (giving time to your own personal development).

Scientific and anecdotal evidence has suggested that we only have so much capacity each day for decision-making and producing high quality, creative work. You know that feeling when you run out of focus and mental energy, and wind up browsing Facebook? Yeah that’s actually entirely natural and happens to everyone. Or when you look at some caffeine-powered writing forced out at 2am and reflect that it reads like bullshit? Again, it’s down to the way our brains are wired – so don’t be too hard on yourself.

The wonderful news is that there are intelligent people out there researching how our mighty brains work (and don’t work), and how we can get more out of them each day. I suggest having a read of this article. However, I do take objection to any suggestions that every person MUST DO THINGS EXACTLY THIS WAY because…well we’re all wired differently. I look at articles like this more as inspiration and suggestions. Often I learn a new way of working as a consequence – even if it’s a little different to what is outlined. Fitting in some walks every day and soaking up some sunshine, being creative through music or cooking, meditating in the morning.

Most of all, find your own way of working best and keep exploring. Oh, and when you have that crazy week of work, see what bits of work (not non-work) you can shift around, as the investment in yourself is probably more valuable than you realise.

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Why is global compassion on the rise?

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This article really resonated with me. Yes, like all ‘science journalism’ its scientific credibility is somewhat dubious, but this exploration of mankind’s compassion and the wider picture of why it might be growing has had me hooked for a while.

A couple of years back I came across some research demonstrating that we’re growing more inclined to admire those who have strong compassion, empathy and kindness rather than traits of ruthlessness and manipulation that have worked well for many leaders – both past and present.. And it was Darwin who claimed that sympathy is our strongest instinct.

Science aside, you observe trends in the world. Now more than ever I hear the word ‘collaboration’ come up. This was evident both in the UK and now here in Australia. This is particularly amongst the younger generation and younger organisations, but those that are a bit older are also warming to it. Charitable, altruistic work is on the rise. I meet so many more people choosing to set up or get involved with organisations that set out to solve problems faced by people in the world that they have no obvious connection to, and devote their lives to this. That’s pretty remarkable isn’t it?

There’s no denying that our lives are becoming more global and technology means that we can connect globally, instantly and at any time. I’m able to speak to and see my friends and family over on the other side of the world instantaneously, which still astounds me.

What this also means, as the article rightly says, is that the issues we face are more global than before, and it will require more global collaboration in order to solve them. Working within our local communities is hardly likely to solve the lack of renewable energy, overpopulation or food shortages, which are all global issues on the rise. Yet all of these are big challenges of the 21st century and will all spill over to affect every single one of us in time if they are not addressed.

Unless we work together, and have compassion for those with whom all we share is our humanity, rather than nationality, religion, politics…then the great challenges of the 21st century may be too complex overwhelming. Attention must be given to similarities, not differences. Our reasons for cooperation, not conflict. Conflict within species is a part of nature, but for no other species in the planet’s history (to our knowledge) has come close to having such a profound impact in such a short space of time.

When I look at this whole picture, I can’t help but wonder whether we are indeed evolving to be more compassionate, more altruistic and more connected on a global scale. Humans have fought one another for millennia, but now we’ve reached the stage where any large-scale conflict would have potentially devastating consequences. Cooperation must be the first option. And some of the challenges we face are so vast and complex that it needs people coming together from all over the world to tackle them.

I see growing movements of people actively seeking out more fulfilling and altruistic lives, challenging our money and consumption obsessed values, prioritizing the positive impact they have in the world over the money they earn. It’s a slow trend, but it’s there, and I can’t help but wonder why. Perhaps evolution – our own fundamental drive for survival as a species – is the answer?

But hey, I’m only speculating…

6 a Day for Greater Good: How small changes can lead to big impact

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I started working on this blog a little while back, the inspiration coming from a conversation with Avis Mulhall and oddly, the marvelous music of Stevie Wonder. Avis and I touched on her monthly event, Think Act Change, and how inspiring it is to see a community of people out there interested in making the world a little bit better. But good intentions matter little and it is after all, actions that count. So the question is how you translate such intention in to meaningful action. A tough one.

For many, the obstacle to doing so seems be that they don’t know how, or that the task seems too daunting that they may want to contribute to. What can one person possibly do about shortages of clean water in Africa? Or widespread poverty? Or malnutrition? Seemingly, not a lot.

So perhaps they look in to it, decide they might like to support an NGO working in this area, either financially or with their time. They turn on the computer (ok, it’s probably already on, but this reads better…), open Google and search ‘Africa poverty organisation’. On the first page there are no less than seventeen organisations listed… “Well UNICEF I’ve heard about, oh and All for Africa sound like nice people…catchy name etc.” Already this whole ‘doing something good’ is getting a bit more complicated.

It prompted me to begin working on some ideas; how about a simple collection of guidelines that are easy to implement and each of us could do to have a positive impact every day? I drafted a few up, and then the document was left in the library of my computer to gather dust (it didn’t really get dusty, that would be ridiculous) for a while.

It was Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography that prompted me to take another look at this; as he had produced a lovely list of virtues for man to work towards. Applicable to anyone, and all in the name of bettering ourselves and the world.

The other principle guiding this is the butterfly effect. That one small positive action, such as listening to someone when they are really struggling could go on to have a much greater impact as that person’s life progresses than we might have thought. I’m also of the view that small but regularly practiced changes can add up to have significant impact, especially thr0ugh their influence on others.

Now I’m not so interested in whether the guidelines I’ve produced are the de facto best ones, but what I really would like is some other suggestions from people. I believe the concept has some value and perhaps even application.

So, a few ideas then. I tried for 5 but ended up with 6…

Care for the environment

Recycle, walk or cycle when you don’t need to drive, turn the lights and power off.

Attitude

Flick your thought pattern from ‘oh, there’s something that needs changing’ to ‘how can I change it’? Start a conversation with someone about it. Spend time in company of others who want to make things better.

Limit consumption  

Buy from companies who you know are ethical and socially responsible where possible. Practice collaborative consumption – rent or borrow rather than buy.

Show compassion

Listen first (someone may really need you and want to share what is happening in their life. We are not great at trying to understand). Ask people how they are and really engage with the answer. Smile at somebody!

Individual

Strive to better ourselves and keep improving. Look after your needs (we need to look after ourselves before looking after others) – eat well, sleep, get exercise, indulge in hobbies and passions. Be a light, not a judge. Acknowledge and understand your prejudices.

Causes

Give a little bit (financially or with time) to an organisation doing valuable work you believe in, but do your research first!

Thoughts?

The dangers of a ‘cult’ of entrepreneurship

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A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the rising trend of entrepreneurship. On reflection, I’m not really sure what I was trying to say with that blog, apart from perhaps that entrepreneurship is good. Or cool. Or something.

Because of events over the last couple of weeks, I’ve swung round to take a different perspective on it.  One of the developments is that I’ve lost some of my attachment to the concept, and have therefore I think a slightly more objective and balanced view on the matter.

Entrepreneurship has its place and is hugely important. It’s important for economic development, although I don’t care too much about that. My interest is more in its societal value, and in that sense it drives new solutions to social problems and new ways of thinking. But the answer to every problem is not to set up a new organisation. A new enterprise is not always the answer. I do think a lot of socially minded entrepreneurs are aware of this – some definitely more than others – but I have noticed a definite trend in social entrepreneurship becoming more fashionable.

Recently I was chatting with Tom Dawkins about how we’ve observed more people aspiring to be a social entrepreneur. It is the concept they are attached to, rather than a specific cause (great article here). Many, Tom included, stumbled in to social entrepreneurship without knowing the term, but simply because it was their way of tackling a social need they had identified. Social entrepreneurship is not an end in itself, it is a means, a toolkit for getting good done.

Now I think it’s great that more people want to learn the tools to get good done and people are drawn towards it. The problem is, you don’t just need social entrepreneurs to tackle social problems and you potentially draw people away from other roles that are hugely valuable.

What about the social ‘intrapreneurs’ who are working within existing organisations to leverage greater good? The social activists raising awareness and challenging thinking/policy on areas that need change? The connectors who unite people around a cause and do greater good as a result? The innovators who see ways to link together existing organisations and programs, in a way that is more efficient than starting up a whole new one?

When I spoke with Gina May Diana, who is one of the co-founders of an awesome new enterprise called ‘OneCanGrow’ she put a Cheshire cat smile on my face when she spoke about teaching young people to become ‘social changemakers’ through their project rather than just social entrepreneurs. This is the way to do it, not just limit them to one means of creating social change.

I think it’s important to teach young people the following:

1) Awareness of the social problems out there in the world

2) That it is possible to make a difference

3) That doing so is potentially hugely rewarding

4) That you can earn a living doing so

5) The tools and mindset to create social change

And here’s where I will make a crucial distinction. I think that what is typically considered ‘entrepreneurial thinking’ has widespread value for anyone. By that, I mean creative problem-solving, commitment, accepting the possibility of failure, bringing people together.

Such thinking can help on a number of levels. But actually being a social entrepreneur; setting up new enterprises to tackle social problems, is only one way to solve these problems.

I’m going to end up with a horrible cliché!

There are many ways to skin a cat…

(yes, I did just compare a cat to a social problem)

Making the most of each day and why less really is more

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There’s been an inescapable realisation creeping up on me this past week. That there’s more. Yes, you know exactly what I mean right!? An explanation then.

I know there are times when I feel extra tuned in and sensitive to life. I notice things I ordinarily wouldn’t; the body language of someone I’m speaking to, connections between people and activities, a conversation off in the corner, the flavours of something I’m eating, previous situations that are similar. It’s being in the moment. Almost an animal-like extrasensory state of being. It’s incredible, but I have no idea what triggers it, and eventually it seems to wear off. When I’m in it, I’m creative, incisive and inspired. I get more out of every little experience taking place around me. It’s as though there’s this extra level, an extra 5% that I get access to.

Where the more lies, is not outside in the world – this is where I think is where so many go wrong. We have no shortage of access now to incredible people, inspiring literature, art, magnificent places. Our days and lives are more varied than ever before, and there is no shortage of sensory input. Yet, somehow on the journey that sensory input takes to reach our consciousness, much of it is filtered out. Neurologically, that makes sense, as our brain receives an incomprehensible amount of information and has to filter out what we are aware of. Can you imagine if we noticed every single time a bird shouts, or the precise actions of our fingers as they type, the pressure on our feet as we stand? It would be incredibly distracting. From an evolutionary perspective, I do wonder if this sensory overload is the reason why we can’t be more tuned in to what we’re experiencing. The brain has had to adapt to this incredible amount of input, and with only so much energy available, that means that there is less to be given to feeling in the moment. Every now and then though there’s a glimpse of it, and it’s phenomenal.

Sometimes I’ll listen to a piece of music and it will trigger off a strong emotional reaction, in turn giving me this heightened sense and with it greater creativity and inspiration. Or I’ll see other people go through an unexpected and emotional experience, which will provide them with greater insight. What is it exactly, about these experiences, that triggers our access to this extra layer?

Many people I meet seem so lacking in self-awareness. They don’t understand why they feel as they do, and can’t connect the dots. When they feel miserable or disillusioned they can’t figure it out. I see people repeat the same behaviours and choices time and time again, and then end up surprised when it leads to the same feeling they were hoping to avoid. It’s utterly bizarre. I see it in work decisions, relationships and even simple daily habits such as sleep. I wonder if this and the sensory overload/lack of consciousness are interconnected.

I see people rush through their lives. Dashing from one task to the next, one person to the next, one place to the next. They soak up the sensory input that’s out there, and in the process completely miss out on a whole level of sensation, experience and awareness that would come from paying more attention to how they feel inside. Often when people slow down that’s when they have these great realisations and epiphanies. A vacation, a break between jobs, a long walk. So many times I hear people come back from a holiday and express excitedly all these new realisations about themselves and their lives that they have discovered, just because they took the time to slow down. Imagine if you could do that every week…?

And if you slow down and allow those realisations to sink in, then with less stress comes greater creativity. I’ve heard it said that the first thing that goes when people cut down on sleep is creativity. Stress makes you productive yes, but how often do our greatest insights surprise us by appearing in the middle of a peaceful moment – a walk, when we get in to bed, cooking dinner? Compared to say… a busy period when we’re drawing up some document or ploughing through emails.

So when I talk about there being more, I don’t mean that there’s more out there in the world, I mean that there’s more inside of us. More awareness, possibilities, potential. Every now and then I meet someone who seems to have found a way to access this, and they give off an incredible energy.

I don’t think we’ll access it through being busier or having/doing more. That distracts us and negates our self-awareness. I think it may come from taking time to slow down, allowing for spontaneity, and through spiritual practice such as meditation. From living a more minimalist life, and cutting down on distractions. Keeping things simple, and demanding less of our energy for processing all this stimuli, so it can instead be redirected to conscious awareness. Buddhist monks are some of the most self-aware, wise people you’ll ever find, and yet they live remarkably simple lives.

We ought to pay more attention to what’s inside, rather than outside.

Why does sunshine make us so happy?

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Well it does, doesn’t? We all know that beautiful feeling of waking up, looking out of the window and seeing blue skies with sunshine streaming in. It puts us in a great mood straight away. Conversely, when up above you is a blanket of grey clouds, we feel pretty fed up. A funny little observation I’ve made since being in Sydney is that people here, broadly speaking, are a little more friendly and cheery than in the UK. And it really is a noticeable enough trend to be obvious. And yet much of the population shares the same ancestry, so how did that happen? The UK’s not that bad is it?

But I’m not going to spend this blog convincing you that sunshine makes us feel happy. Most of us have already had this insight and if you haven’t…well you should probably stop reading here as the rest of the blog is based on this assumption. And you’re probably living somewhere without much sunlight – like Antarctica maybe. Go and take a holiday in the Caribbean and then read it again.

Neuroscientists have identified the physiological basis of this improvement in mood that occurs when we receive more sunlight. Depending on what you read, you will hear about increases in certain chemicals called endorphins and serotonin. Both have been frequently linked to mood, and indeed the main form of drug treatment for depression is a series of drugs called SSRIs, which artificially raise our levels of serotonin. I touched on the subject in an earlier blog (linked to brain changes blog).

For most Neuroscientists, they think that this increase in chemicals is a splendid answer to the question of the title. But not for me. You see, mood is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved over time to give us a biological advantage. We have reward pathways in the brain, which exist to give us a positive feeling when we do something that is good for us i.e. anything that helps us to survive or create more mini people. Likewise they give us a negative feeling when we do the opposite. Of course there are plenty of examples where this can go horribly wrong – such as with some recreational drugs, which act very powerfully on these reward mechanisms and confuse the hell out of our bodies.

So emotion isn’t just there because it’s nice to feel happy. It has a more adaptive purpose. With that in mind, why does the sun lift our mood? Or rather, why does our reward mechanism in the brain tell us that being in the sun is AWESOME? When I connect up the dots I’m left with the conclusion that sunlight obviously has an impact on our bodies that is important for us physiologically – important for our survival and health.

The best answer I can come up with is Vitamin D. Sunlight is well known to increase Vitamin D in our bodies, a vitamin that is quite tricky to get from any other source in the same quantity as from the sun. It’s good for our teeth, bones AND does truly marvellous things for our immune system. Well that’s pretty awesome. I guess with that in mind, it would make some sense that our brain is telling us to go and soak up more of it.

The bizarre lead on then from this then, is that those of us living in countries without much sunlight and feeling miserable (typically associated with higher levels of mental illness, especially seasonal affective disorder and even higher suicide rates) are actually receiving feedback from our brains telling us to LEAVE. It’s basically saying to you, “Look, you can stay in this country with its rubbish weather where I’m not going to get any of that delicious Vitamin D I like, but I’m going to make you feel bloody miserable if you do.” If this was the most powerful driving force for humans, we would probably see a very different population density across the globe, with hoards of people moving to Latin America and the Caribbean, and no one left in Scandinavia or the UK. I don’t know what would happen to Eskimos.

So those are my two cents on the matter. Hopefully I’ll uncover more reasons why our brains have adapted to encourage us to get outside in the lovely sunshine.

And in the mean time go and listen to ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone’ by Bill Withers. It’s been in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this blog…

Learning to love your ego

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A gripe I have with social entrepreneurship and the social sector more broadly is that ego often rears its head and interferes with the primary purpose of these areas; to do good. Much of the time the two are aligned; doing good meets our more philanthropic urges and can also give us the status and praise that our ego needs. But there are inevitably moments when what is best for our ego is not what is best for the greater good, and this is where you see people taking ownership, getting competitive and allowing the cause to take a back seat.

I decided a while ago that I didn’t want ego to my motive for doing the work I do – as there would inevitably be times when it bumped in to the more philanthropic motives and indeed that’s proven the case on a number of occasions. There’s no place for ego in a line of work that is dedicated to helping others right? So I made a great decision – I’m going to ignore my ego/beat it into submission until it buggers off. Yeah, because that’s really going to work.

I was faced with a big decision recently, one that really challenged my ego. And my initial reaction when faced with this decision was unquestionably ego-dominated. This was a confusing moment for me, as I hadn’t I decided that my ego wasn’t allowed to influence me? Hmm…obviously it’s not quite that simple.

And then an insight came to me. That it’s futile to try to ignore your ego. Unfortunately having an ego is a symptom of a larger condition called ‘being human’, and I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that all of us share this condition, and therefore all of us have some ego. It’s human nature. We are naturally driven to survive and procreate, so being successful and having status facilitates that. Ego is a strong adaptive mechanism for humans and is an incredibly powerful tool for achieving success and status. Every human has it. Yes, even Ghandi did (sorry Ghandi).

So rather than turning your back on that little creature in the corner of your room called ego, it’s best to look it in the eye (quiet – it’s my blog, and I’ve decided it has eyes. Yeah it’s got ears and a nose too, get over it) and say, ‘Hey, I just met you, and this is craaaaazy, but you’re my ego, and I’ll do what I choose’. Or words to a similar effect. Acknowledge its existence, its potential value in helping you to achieve your goals, but then when it comes in to conflict with your more philanthropic motives then send that ego to the corner of the room. Again, it comes down to first accepting that it exists, and then taking action based on this knowledge. You can use ego to help you, but don’t let it rule you. And don’t pretend it’s not there, as it always will be.

In the bigger picture, for the reasons I’ve stated around human nature I don’t believe pure altruism exists. Although I do recall reading a psychological debate about it that went back and forth with research for 20 years, eventually descending in to semantics and even mocking, snide remarks in the research publications (which were hilariously petty – these are supposedly adults…). Ironically, whilst debating altruism, the two main protagonists were motivated by the need to prove themselves right – their own egos. But I digress…

I believe we are influenced by many motives, which play in to the hundreds of decisions, big or small, that we each make every day. Altruism/philanthropy is one motive, ego is another and then there are more basic motives such as food, safety, sex and the more complex motives such as love, social, growth that are more associated with humans than other animals. The respective strengths of these motives varies depending on situation, context, how well they are being met etc. And there’s overlap between them and so on and oh no…this is in danger of descending in to psychological theory so I’m not going to explore this in more depth for now.

What I will say is that I’m yet to figure out how or why altruism/philanthropy fits in this complex picture of human motives. Although there is an interesting line of research-led thought that this suggests that this is the direction the human brain is evolving towards. I’ll leave that for another blog I’m writing.

I’ve come across some social entrepreneurs who I’m still waiting to really meet, as thus far I feel I’ve only conversed with their ego. Yet, these are people who dedicate their time and efforts to doing good. They’re driven by their ego, but they’ve decided to pursue the success of status that comes with creating social change, rather than just making money. That’s great, and I’m glad the social sector has them rather than the corporate sector. But I think ego as a dominant motive will only take you so far. Perhaps it will come through in small daily decisions, or culminate in one massive decision, but ego will make it harder to put your own desires aside in the favour of the ‘greater good’. It’s also fragile and needs regular feeding in order to be happy.

Ego is an incredibly powerful driving force. But I think those of us working within the social sector need to be aware of the role it plays within each of us so that when push comes to shove, and we have to choose between doing something that benefits us or that benefits the cause we’re trying to help, the hammer comes down on the latter. Every time.

I’ll end with a quote from Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organisaton:

“Ego and money make for good slaves, but poor masters.”

 

Is ego your slave, or your master?