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.

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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?

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…

The limits of human understanding

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One of my favourite modules during my Neuroscience studies had almost nothing to do with the actual practice of science. This fact seemed to confuse some of the academics as to why it then existed, and I would identify this confusion as the mean reason it ended up with such a bizarre and inappropriate name of ‘Biology in Society’. In essence, it was about the development of science (not just biology) through the ages, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers.

A couple of learnings I took from this module were that our methods of understanding the universe have evolved enormously through the centuries, and also that as of the 18th century science really began to take over from religion as the de facto way of explaining just about everything.

I believe science to be of huge value but also grossly imperfect. My thinking behind this is not so much to do with science as a method, but the exponents of it… i.e. us.

The human brain has evolved a certain way over many, many years. As a result, it has given us an understanding of the universe that far exceeds any other species we share the planet with (to the best of our knowledge anyway, we have no proof that snails can’t explain the creation of the universe). We can perceive, and explain much. However, we only have so much space in the brain and so many neural connections that can be made. Evolution has sacrificed certain abilities along the way, to enable others to flourish. The parts of our brain dedicated to sensory input are vastly inferior to many other animals. The eyesight of a bird makes us look blind in comparison; it can see farther, processes motion in a way we don’t, and can even see different light spectrums that are invisible to us. There are things in the world we simply can’t perceive because our brains are not wired that way (although the tools we create can compensate in some cases). You can find examples for hearing, touch, taste, smell…

But we’ve evolved differently. Our frontal lobe is enormous compared with most of the animal kingdom (apes aside). This has given us some unique abilities and advantages. But it does not make us perfect.

The universe is deeply complex. We are simply a product of evolution. Why do we think that evolution has given us the ability to understand and explain everything? We already know that there are many things our senses can not perceive…but what else is there that we do not yet know about? Are we so special, that it just so happens that the evolution of our brains allows us to understand everything about how the universe works? Oddly, that seems to be the expectation. On the whole, as a species, we see ourselves as some master race. We’re not; we’re just different to the others. And oddly, of all the species on the planet, we seem least able to exist in harmony with our environment.

There are many fundamental concepts we have been unable to explain. The way forces act on the universe (hence the creation of the as yet unproven forces of dark matter, dark energy and dark flow). Theories that there are four , five or even six dimensions. That other universes may exist around us.

Human thinking is somewhat binary in that there either is something, or there is not. Such thinking bumps in to obstacles. Although we have theories now around the big bang, they mostly seem to posit that a couple of random particles bumped in to one another. But where did they come from? How was there space around them in the first place? Somehow, there was once nothing and then there was the universe. Try and get your head around that. How did absolutely nothing at all turn in to something? That makes no sense. And how is that once nothing existed at all? Or perhaps the universe is timeless, it has always been here. But again that doesn’t seem to fit our way of thinking…how can we analyse that? Stick that in to our formula? Our brains don’t handle the concept of infinity especially well.

A similar example is the size and shape of the universe. There must be an edge right? Whatever shape it is, again this requires that there be something (the universe) and then…what? Nothing again? What is outside of the universe? And like with respect to time, perhaps the dimension of space is also infinite. So yet again, we bump against a concept – infinity – that we struggle to comprehend.

It might just be possible that in between nothing and something is a concept that we aren’t capable of understanding. That for all that our brains can do as a result of evolution, they can’t quite figure this one out. We can’t explain everything that is going on around us in the universe, because we have limitations. The universe did not develop specifically to fit in to the paradigms of understanding of just one its countless species.

And let’s think about this for a moment…thanks to evolution we have learned to better understand the world around us. This has been an adaptive mechanism that through developments such as medicine and technology enables us to thrive as a species like none other. Our understanding of our planet is phenomenal. However, why would it be adaptive in evolutionary terms for us to understand the universe? Up until midway through the last century we had never even left our own planet. In a fierce and competitive environment in which every little bit of space in our brains has evolved to give us an adaptive advantage, why would space be wasted trying to understand concepts like the beginning of the universe which have little to no impact on our ability to survive on Earth? Take the example of infinity – the Earth is finite and full of finite limits. Understanding infinity would not help us much here.

Of course, this does beg the obvious question of why we would even try to do so, and I’m afraid I have no answer to this.

We do a mighty impressive job, but I don’t believe everything in the universe fits within our limited way of understanding and explaining things. Heck, we don’t even understand our own motives most of the time.

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.

The education system: Please reboot

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Whilst assessing the year ahead and weighing up a possible move back to the UK, a surprising realisation hit me; that as a recent graduate it seemed easier to get a job by starting an organisation rather than joining an existing one.

On an individual level, this is in part down to my having spent the last few years embarking on similar endeavours, but the increasing number of graduates who I’ve seen reaching a similar conclusion suggests there are systemic issues too. Basically, unless you have experience, contacts or in-demand specific skillsets it’s very hard to find work in the current economic climate – and young graduates fresh in to the world of work are the ones who suffer the most because of this. Unfortunately, the current educational system is doing a woefully inadequate job of fulfilling its primary role; to prepare young people for the world of work. Degrees don’t count for much to employers given that nearly everyone seems to have one, and a degree simply teaches you how to write about stuff, not actually do stuff.

It does seem somewhat farcical that we spend 3 years and £30,000 learning mostly how to write essays or exams about our field of interest, rather than actually practice in it. If you were to design a new education system from scratch, it would little resemble the current one. These faults are hardly surprising, given that the free, compulsory system of education was designed originally for the industrial age in the 19th century. Governments are notoriously slow at updating existing systems, and are far more inclined towards minor incremental changes over large whole-scale change, even though the latter is sometimes needed. For example, the curriculum in Australia recently went through a considerable review and re-design, and the very conservative outcome was largely seen as an enormous missed opportunity to bring it up to date by those within the sector.

I know that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around at the moment due to the world’s faltering economic system, but it doesn’t feel right that graduates are unfairly penalised by the existing systems. I grew up with so many outstanding young people who would bring value to any organisation, but now can’t find paid work having had their creativity and open-mindedness beaten out of them by an education system that values sitting in the library over getting out in to the working world. Personally, I’d have found a 3 year internship in various working environments a more valuable use of my student debt and time than my degree was. Heck, the world, and consequently the job market, are changing so fast that many of us will end up working jobs that don’t even exist yet (think about the impact of the computer revolution). Surely time spent learning a broad range of real-world skills would be better suited to that future than time spent on one narrow discipline.

And this is, after all, the generation who is about to inherit a world buried under a mountain of debt, waste, and facing a plethora of considerable environmental issues. It’s a generation we need to invest heavily in; let’s actually make the most of the tremendous potential locked within our youngest and brightest. An education system that fosters real-world skills and knowledge would be a good start.

 

 

The genius that is Sir Ken Robinson vocalises this debate far better and more elaborately than I ever could here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=player_embedded

If you’ve never watched an RSA video before then you’re in for a treat!

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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