Taking a balanced perspective in an opinionated world

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A friend of mine recently said to me that ‘if you can’t see both sides of an argument, then you shouldn’t be arguing.’

 

It continues to amaze me when I see people announce a strongly-held one-sided view on some topic, whether it be religion, consumerism, politics or whatever else. These issues are divisive and controversial essentially because each side of the argument has strengths to it.

 

And yet attention is rarely given to those who sit on the fence. We like to listen to those who make a lot of noise and take a strong stance on one side – people like Richard Dawkins. I believe we perceive these people as intelligent, charismatic, strong characters. They’ve thought about a subject in depth and come to a firm conclusion. But were there not another valid side to the argument, the argument would not exist. All they’ve done by taking a strong stance on one side is to show that they are either a) lacking in empathy by being unable to understand another person’s perspective or b) too stubborn to acknowledge that they just might not be 100% right.

 

I believe we should pay more attention to those who can see and argue both sides. And often they will come to a conclusion that leans more on one side, but the crucial thing is that they have a balanced perspective. To me, these are the people who have genuinely thought about it in depth and are interested in the truth of the debate, rather than simply personal recognition.

 

This subject arose at the recent Anti-Hero launch at the RSA. They drew attention to the dominant model of leadership which rewards, amongst other things, those who take a firm and clear stance on subjects. They then pointed out that the nature of many complex problems is that they do have conflicting, strongly-held viewpoints and we need leaders who can understand both sides well enough in order to make the decision that benefits most.

 

Next time someone sits on a fence about an issue, don’t assume that it’s because they are weak or indecisive. Perhaps it is precisely because they have that rare ability to hold and balance two counter-argument simultaneously and see the bigger picture. I long held the belief that as we grow older and wiser, we will have much firmer opinions about the world. What I’m finding instead, is that as I increasingly see how complex and contrasting the world is, often it seems narrow or short-sighted to sit firmly and stubbornly on one side of argument.

The Unpredictability of Creativity

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The other day I was having a conversation in the pub with a friend about how unpredictable our bursts of creativity are. The following morning, appropriately, I woke up with this blog in my head and for reasons I can’t understand, this one too. Normally hangovers (2 and a half pints – that’s embarrassing) and lack of sleep conspire to prevent a single original thought entering my head, so why I woke up in a creative frame of mind is beyond me. It only goes to reaffirm the conversation my friend and I were having; creativity is a funny old thing.

 

How do we access our creativity? It’s a very pertinent question, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s very popular talk on TED goes to show that it’s one many of us are interested in. In her talk she reveals that on some days she sits down at her computer and that spark simply isn’t there – and this is from a bestselling author. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with some of my more creative friends; some days it’s there, some days it’s not, and it’s hard to nail down why that is.

 

My take is that the triggers are deeply varied and complex, and I’m not so sure that a creative frame of mind is something that can just be switched on. Not to mention, each brain is different, and what works for one person may stifle creativity in another. What we can do is try to create the conditions that are conducive to creativity, that improve the likelihood of finding ourselves in a creative frame of mind. Although as I’ve said, these will vary from person to person. A few things that I find helpful are:

 

#1 Taking a mental break from whatever the creative activity is. I find that creativity comes more easily when my mind isn’t on the task and I’m not trying to force it. Somewhere in my unconscious ideas have been churning away, and I just need to give them the space to do so.

 

#2 Talking to people about the creativity activity. Interaction challenges and develops my ideas as I’m exposed to new ones. Sounds obvious, but sometimes we think people won’t be able to grasp our idea and so we stay quiet about it.

 

#3 Getting peace and quiet. There’s an unbelievable amount of noise in modern society, and so much information to be distracted by, which then occupies the mind. I know many writers who will shut themselves away somewhere isolated when they need to write, although this does make #2 difficult!

 

#4 Listening to music. This is a big one for me, but film and books can also inspire me. I recall reading not so long ago a neuroscience article about a study showing that music is good for creativity because of the areas of the brain it triggers activity in. There’s a good justification for playing music in the office!

 

#5 Mood. Confidence plays a big role in my creativity, so I need to be in quite a positive frame of mind. I know for some this is different – creativity is linked to any strong emotional state, positive or negative.

 

#6 Going for a walk! I’m not sure whether it’s the fresh air or the mild exercise, but after a walk I always come back refreshed with new ideas and focus.

 

What works for other people?

The process of learning

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I believe the way that we learn roughly looks like this:

 

Process of learning image

We can gather information about the world from a whole range of sources – from books, conversations, videos, observation etc. Then some weird, wacky and wonderful process happens in our brains, in which information is analysed, compared and integrated, and this in turn forms our understanding of the world. This can generate original ideas about the world around us, which we can try out by conversing with people, by practically applying them in the form of creating products, launching organisations etc. Ultimately, by throwing our ideas out in to the world, we will gain feedback about our ideas, which provides further information about the world and on and on it goes…

 

This ties in with my view that learning is very much an iterative trial and error process in which we basically try something out, get it wrong but by doing so gain information, and at each stage our ideas become more refined and valuable to the world. This is counter to the dominant philosophy currently held in education which only values the first step – gathering information about the world. It does this by having us read books and listen to teachers tell us about the world. We are then tested on whether we are right or wrong – on our ability to retain and regurgitate knowledge. Even as begin to reach step 2 and develop our own ideas about the world, we do so within a very limited set of criteria. At university we are systematically evaluated and analysed on our ability to evaluate and analyse! Somehow there is even a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the way we develop our own ideas about the world, by its very nature stifling creativity and learning. Steps 3 and 4 are not encouraged in schools and thus our learning process is sadly stunted.

 

My own learning about the world has accelerated since I left formal education, and this morning I was weighing up how my ideas have developed over time. At the moment I am living in Swindon and I notice that my learning is being stunted somewhat, because I am not in an environment in which I can practice the third stage; trialling my own ideas in the real world. I am consuming books at a vast rate, but in order to refine that information I need to have conversations with people – ideally people whose ideas are more developed than mine and who will challenge me and highlight the flaws in my thinking. I also need to be able to try launching initiatives of my own to see whether they have the real world value that in theory I believe they do. By doing this (and I know I need to get to London in order to do so) I will get some things right, more things wrong and overall gain feedback which will further the learning circle.

 

I’ll touch briefly here on a tension that exists between this natural learning process and the societal norms we experience. I grew up believing that to be wrong was basically akin to committing a sin, and my peers behaved in a similar manner. Making mistakes and ‘failing’ is hardly talked about in our society, but as I found in the entrepreneurial world, when it is talked about you can almost feel the relief in your peers as their shoulders visibly lighten. ‘Yes!’ they often say, ‘I made that mistake too!’. Why learn from our own mistakes if we can learn from the mistake of others? What a valuable learning experience. And why not share our own errors so that others can help see the lesson in them? To show us that our mistakes are not unnatural, but actually wholly to be expected? Amusingly, I still watch people as they vehemently argue that their point is right rather than acknowledging an opposing view and by doing so developing their ideas further. Their fear of being wrong is stunting their learning and growth, and will long continue to do so unless they can overcome it.

 

We are in a lucky position today whereby the information we can gather about the world is enormous. We have vast libraries of books, and then the biggest library of information ever known to man – that thing called the worldwide web. I notice the value of this in my own learning. I will start with a fairly broad subject, and as my ideas become refined I narrow down further and further. In a sense it can be frustrating, because just as I think that I have developed an original and valuable idea, someone will point me towards an individual or organisation who has already developed this. And so I gather more information from them, and in time I will be able to generate my own original and valuable ideas about the world. This same process has been practised by every person in every discipline in the history of humanity’s understanding about the world, as we build up our global knowledge bank. It was Einstein who said it best, ‘If I have seen a little further, it is only because I have been able to stand on the shoulders of giants’. This is how it sometimes feels, that as I read a great mind like EF Schumacher I am able to integrate his exceptionally developed ideas in to my own understanding of the world and then build further upon that – not because my mind is in anyway comparable to Schumacher’s, but because his ideas are accessible to me. I feel incredibly fortunate that libraries and the web offer me free, easy access to these ideas and these minds; this is a unique period in history that many do not appreciate.

 

By not making the most of this information, by not listening to talks by or having conversations with thinker-doers at the cutting edge of field, or by reading their writing, working alongside them etc we are essentially declining to learn anymore about the world than someone could have in the past. And even those whose ideas were developed many decades ago but still have great value like EF Schumacher and whose ideas are accessible to us, if we do not learn from them then we are declining to learn more about the world than someone could have many years ago.

 

The neatest way to sum this article up is to turn this theory of learning on to it and weighing up its place within that. It is obviously an attempt to trial my ideas in the real world. Next I will get some feedback which will further inform my ideas & knowledge. Someone may point out flaws, or more likely tell me that I’ve basically just regurgitated a theory someone else has already pioneered. In which case I’d look at their theory, assess its flaws and my ideas will be developed further.

 

And on and on it goes…

Floundering Intelligently

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So it’s been a fair old time since I last wrote anything. Amongst other things, this blog will hopefully go some way towards explaining why.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a terrific event called the Festival of Education at Wellington College. The most memorable session for me was run by an education innovator called Guy Claxton. Everything about the talk resonated with me, most of all his vision and work on progressing towards a 21st century education system – one that exists to prepare young people for the working world. He was talking about the role of teachers in schools, particularly in relation to the value held in education that it is all about being right, rather than experimenting, potentially being wrong and learning from that. He rightly pointed out that in the adult world we are often confronted with situations in which there is no clear right or wrong, and in which we don’t have a bloody clue what we’re doing. He remarked that schools should be safe spaces for teachers and students both to work through unknown, complex situations where we don’t know what is right – safe spaces to flounder intelligently.

That phrase ‘flounder intelligently’ struck a chord with me, and has rattled around my head since. To be honest, I’ve been floundering ever since the beginning of 2013. The title of the blog is somewhat ironic because although at times I’ve felt very much as though I am learning and progressing, at other times the floundering has not felt intelligent in any way, shape or form. It’s just been floundering.

What I haven’t done, is be particularly open about it. I’m writing now partly because it’s cathartic, partly because I feel the learning is important, and partly because I don’t feel we as a society are anywhere near open enough about our struggles in life – in education or as adults. Be the change you want to see and all that – smart man that Ghandi fellow. I have some inspiring friends who have been transparent about difficulties they are having (much more significant than mine), and I thought I’d follow their lead.

2013 was the first year I didn’t set goals at the beginning of. My single intention was to carry on in the direction I was headed in, which was exactly where I wanted to go. The first six months in Sydney were mind-boggingly amazing and my life was just where I wanted it to be. No more than a week in to 2013, this all started to change. A combination of internal and external changes completely caught me off guard and de-railed me.

I was dependent on the university I was working at for both my visa and living wage going forward, and that went from looking likely to very uncertain and at the least not being available for a while. Significantly, I was aware that had I been in the UK where I’m a citizen then it wouldn’t have been an issue. A lot of promising work leads then started to fall through, almost comically so in some instances. In addition to this were two very unexpected changes in me; a strong desire to lay down roots and no longer be travelling from place to place, and a loss of motivation towards most of my current work. I realised that I wanted to move back to the UK and settle in London, and that I wanted to move away from mental health work towards environment/sustainability – a field I had no experience in.

So I find myself back in Swindon (which remains as dull as ever) living with my parents and struggling away to find paying work in London. To an extent, the novelty of being back in the country with so many of my friends and my family is still strong and it’s wonderful to now know that I want to stay here indefinitely. On the other hand, I’m still quite uncertain as to the work direction I want to go in and am finding it far more difficult to create work opportunities than at any point over the last few years. A lot of things fell in to place for me from my final year at university onwards – I thought I was very much in control of where my life was headed, turns out it was more that I was very lucky; a tough realisation to absorb.

It’s what’s been going on inside though that’s been really testing. My ideas, motivation, sense of purpose, intuition…things I had held very dear and had in riches in Australia all began to fade. I had come to rely increasingly on intuition over the years as my compass and it became stronger and stronger, but then at the turn of the year it went silent and would only pop up in glimpses. It’s still fairly quiet. I went from feeling like I was on a clear course and thriving to the absolute opposite. I had become increasingly calm and balanced (a few friends in Australia joked about me being ‘zen’), but this changed too – I grew easily rattled and cycled through feeling lost, confused, desperate and useless.

That last word was probably the toughest to acknowledge. It was very frustrating feeling like I was not of much use to anyone, especially compared to Australia where I held a number of leadership roles, I could influence change, was giving talks, and had connections. It has made me reflect on how special that time in Aus was. How lucky I was.

And I realised how very little I actually know! My goodness. That’s been humbling. One of the most profound realisations I think we can have is just how remarkably little we actually know. I know next to nothing about the world and how to change it. But I do now know that I have huge amounts of learning to do.

I don’t think you can overstate the importance of acceptance – especially of that which we find hard. I should have been more open earlier, as I’m writing this now from a space where I’m starting to find clarity and move through it. I’m not sure whether it’s healthy to flounder, but it is what it is and I can’t deny that’s what I’ve been doing. We shouldn’t pretend to know all the answers or get caught up in the illusion that we are in control – life and people are unpredictable. But if we’re going to flounder – do it intelligently, reflect on the lessons, speak to others. So for now, I’m going to flounder a little more…

Two types of confidence

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Here’s why the ego is weak and vulnerable; it depends upon external stimuli to boost it. It goes up and down according to the feedback it gets from the outside world. Thus, when our confidence is tied to the ego, our confidence too depends on the outside world. Our self-esteem is entirely dependent on how people behave towards us. It goes up when we are paid a compliment. Goes down when we hear someone talk ill of us. It is fragile and fickle. It can balloon up, but just easily burst and leave a person in tatters. Think about it, it means that our opinion of ourselves is inexorably tied to the opinion others hold of us. Other people can build us up, or tear us down.

 

I believe there’s another type of confidence. It’s a type I’ve seen in Buddhist monks, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I see it in prominent leaders, who are so self-assured, and yet seem so humble with it. This type of confidence is not dependent on our external world, but on our internal world. It’s a confidence that can only come from self-awareness and self-understanding. From self-acceptance. It is not so easily influenced by others in our external world. I’m sure these people still have ego (I believe it to be a fundamental part of evolutionary human nature), but they do not rely on it for their self-worth. How liberating…to not fear how others judge us. To try to be the best we can be individually, not the best that others think we can be.

 

As such, this confidence grows from deepening our acknowledgement of ourselves. Of accepting and embracing our weaknesses, just as we like to embrace our strengths. It grows as we grow in to ourselves, and try to be the best version of ourselves. When at peace with ourselves, we are not concerned with whether a person ‘likes’ us or not. In fact, some will dislike us for it simply because they envy that way of being. More likely, people will be drawn to it though. For all our differences, I believe at some level we are all looking for that sense of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

 

The ego can provide quick bursts of confidence that feel great. This inner type of confidence takes time, work and a lot of patience. But unlike that of the ego, it is real confidence. It stays with us and enables us to flourish.

Past and future reflections

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It’s been some time since my last blog. There’s good reason for that. But it didn’t feel right to end 2012 without writing at least once more, and there a few things I must acknowledge before the year is out.

 

There’s an analogy I like to use to explain how our energy levels work – indulge me. It involves a cup of water. When we are truly refreshed, we wake up and the water is right at the top of the glass. Our days are busy, and by the end of it the water level has dropped somewhat. How demanding it is, and how well we look after ourselves during the day determines how much that level drops. By taking time to relax in the evenings and getting a good sleep, by the next morning that water level has risen near the top again. We start off with a good baseline energy level.

 

What can happen over time, is that if the demands we put on ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally outweigh the activities that allow us to recover, is that each day we start with less and less water in our glass. Our baseline energy is lower. When we get near the bottom, then we must be careful, as if use the same energy as when the water is near the top, then we could hit the bottom of the glass. And then bad things happen – we get ill, over-stressed, feel exhausted and overwhelmed. We don’t have enough in the tank to deal with the challenges that come our way.

 

The last couple of months I’ve felt like I’ve been getting worrying close to the bottom of the glass. But I can’t just walk away from my commitments – the commitments which demand energy. So I’ve been trying to gradually wind things down; to make life less demanding. It’s taken a while to get there. There are times when I have hit the bottom of the glass and that’s been hard. I’ve gotten unwell, felt emotionally fragile and wanted some space from big responsibilities for a while.

 

This week many of those commitments have been finally tied up, and packed away ready for a later date when I have the energy they deserve. And this week marks the first time in months, that I’ve felt the water in my glass getting a little higher every day. Each day I have bit more spark, perspective, energy. It’s tempting to use it all up in excitement, but I’m staying patient and letting it fill all the way up to the top. The lesson here, of course, is to learn a better balance that enables the water to stay near the top longer, and not get so easily depleted. That’s one of my reflections heading in to 2013.

 

And 2013 is very much open us now. The Christmas break has always seemed an ideal time to reflect on the past year and how far we’ve come, as well as look ahead to where we want to go next in the forthcoming year. It’s always a time of year I find especially insightful, because it lends itself to that quiet time needed to pause and consider.

 

2012 has been a special year for me. I left home to live outside of the UK for the first time; left behind all I knew. I spent four months fulfilling a long-held dream to travel. Saw Angkor. Learned to dive. Started up a new project out here in Australia. Became a Rotarian. Started a life on the other side of the world.

 

But these individual snapshots do not paint a picture, they do not demonstrate the feelings and experiences of a year. I feel more certain now in the path I’m taking, and in my capabilities to pursue it. Feel more excited by the projects I am involved in, and more able to have a positive impact through them. The learning has been huge. And I’ve met, and worked with, some astonishing people. I’d like to acknowledge them. All those who have welcomed me to a new country; you have my thanks. All those who I know are trying to make the world a little bit better; you have my respect and admiration. I hope you realise what a wonderful thing you’ve done over the past 12 months.

 

And what’s next? It’s not a question I can answer. But maybe you already know for yourself. If not, then this is a good to think on it, and to discuss with others. I know that’s what I will be doing. This time over the break I will use to recover, to make up my days as I go along, and chart out the course for the next year. It’s not often we have that opportunity.

 

Have a great Christmas, and make next year the best one yet.

Looking after Number One

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As you will see, it is somewhat ironic that I sit here writing this entry at 2am in a Starbucks Cafe in Washington DC, a long way from the place I call home – Sydney. Yet it is oft the absence of something that hammers home its importance to us.

 

I look back on three pivotal events that have defined the last few years of my life; going through depression, catching glandular fever, and finding purpose. The first two taught me the importance of looking after ourselves properly, the latter provided me with a powerful incentive.

 

Now some time ago, I wrote about the investment we can make in ourselves, and that I believe this to be the most valuable investment we make in our lives. It pays back with some serious interest. I’d like to follow up on this.

 

I didn’t learn a great deal from my Neuroscience studies (except that the aroma of formaldehyde should never be combined with a hangover), but what stands out is that the body is at all times a quite remarkable and fine chemical balance. It is so easy to knock our bodies off balance, and we really feel the effects of doing so. I’ve recently been reading Matt Church’s ‘High Life 24/7’, and he mentions that one night of no sleep can affect us for up to six weeks after – that’s how long it takes for our bodies to return to their proper chemical balance. That one night of missed sleep in isolation is not much of a health risk, but it may be the reason why you wake up the odd day feeling lethargic, and your day is worse for it. How that could have been avoided…

 

He refers to give key areas of our lives that have a significant impact on our chemical balance; nutrition, sleep, exercise, thought patterns and how we deal with stress. I’d venture that social connection should be number six, as this has been shown by research to have a significant impact on our neural chemistry. Now I’ve met very, very few people who I believe take good care of each of these areas. Simple habits such as drinking lots of coffee, eating fast food, sleeping in at the weekend, staying up past when we’re tired, missing out on gym sessions and letting stress control them can have negative consequences beyond what we realise. They can knock us off-kilter, leaving us wondering why we feel tired, snappy, uncreative or disillusioned when there seems to be no obvious life circumstance at the cause. This is rather an obstacle to us achieving our goals, whether they be in our working lives or just life satisfaction.

 

However, there is an enormous, gargantuan opportunity within this. The sheer scope of this opportunity has only begun to register in my consciousness since I arrived in Sydney five months ago. The opportunity is that if we can learn to listen to our body chemistry, to understand our needs and develop habits that nourish them, then we are potentially better off for every day of the rest of our lives. If we can understand the ideal sleep pattern for ourselves, eat well, exercise as much as we need, develop great strategies for stress and learn positive thinking habits…then everything in our life benefits; productivity, creativity, contentment, relationships, confidence, learning, purpose, passion…We can do more, better, and we feel more fucking awesome about it. Not bad.

 

So why the heck are so few people developing these habits? There are a few obstacles. Lack of knowledge of what these needs are in ourselves and the habits we should develop. Lack of time or patience to implement them. But I think the biggest obstacle, and I’ve written about this before, is that we’re bloody awful at being self-aware. Whether it be because of the western favouritism of logic over intuition, or the fast pace of modern life, we plain suck at tuning in to our bodies and minds. But this extra time spent on self-reflection means that we get more out of all of the rest of our time.

 

I’m not theorising. I firmly believe in the importance of understanding these needs and habits – and preferably doing so young – because I’ve benefitted enormously from it. At some stages of uni I was sleeping four hours a night, drinking a lot of alcohol, using caffeine to get through the day, not taking the time to cook and eat properly and running off pure adrenaline much of the time. The dips could be extreme, I was frequently getting ill and wasn’t getting anywhere near my own potential. Nowadays I eat really well, drink only water, consume no caffeine most days, cycle every day and get a solid sleep almost every night. The difference is staggering. I feel better, and I’m capable of much more than I previously thought. I also learn and develop much faster than before. It’s very rare that I wake up and don’t feel full of energy/optimism for the day, and I’ve had one day off ill in five months. I feel that embedding these habits now (and continuing to improve them) will allow me to get more from my life for the foreseeable future, and in all likelihood will make my life longer too.

 

Convinced yet? If not, pick up a copy of one of Matt Church’s books and see for yourself how much more awesome your life could be. And let’s be honest, we’d all rather like that. I see this as building a foundation upon which we can flourish for the rest of our lives. It’s not sexy, but the rewards are phenomenal.

 

So with all this in mind…how much better would this entry have been if I was more well-rested, had been eating better food, exercising more and feeling more settled? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but I would venture it would be a fair bit better…

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