Monday, October 19, 2015

Occupational Hazards

Most strengths have associated weaknesses if they are overused. We know this from it's opposite and the unfair interview question of 'what are your weaknesses?'. The normal response is trotting out things like 'I can be a bit of a perfectionist/ I can be a bit bossy when things need to get done/... My awesomeness often irritates people'. There are Occupational Hazards that can be be tough to avoid. If you are a lawyer trained to find holes in arguments, it can be difficult to switch that off when you are listening to your friends. If you are a psychologist, it can be difficult not to analyse the people close to you. If you are a doctor, it can be difficult to show empathy to someone with a few sniffs and a severe, debilitating case of man flu.

I have spent the last 15 months writing daily blog posts, and thinking about happiness and learning. One of the criticisms of the modern world is that we don't have time to think. I have time to think. We don't have time for our friends and family. I have time for friends and family. We don't notice things because our heads are absorbed by work worries. I have time to notice things.

By writing every day, looking for ideas has become a habit. Almost every conversation becomes a potential blog post. Almost every interaction becomes a dot that I might be able to connect to something else. The very human characteristic of trying to see patterns in everything becomes what I am almost always thinking about. The problem is you can end up like John Nash in a cabin in the backyard seeing patterns that aren't actually there. Some things are just random, unconnected, inconsistent, noise.

I regularly get asked what my biggest take home has been. Despite thinking simplifying things down to 100 words is a useful exercise, I don't think it is a great way of giving answers. It is a good way of getting new, more beautiful, questions. I don't think I have big take homes yet. I started out with the idea of '100 hour projects'. By self-experimenting on learning things that I had previously thought I wasn't good at, I could extract richness from areas of experiences I had ruled out. I could write about barriers to learning. Instead of 10,000 hours and becoming World Class, wouldn't it be great to just get over the first hurdles that often stop us before we start. I thought 'First 100 hours' was catchy. I even bought Then I discovered Josh Kaufman's 'The First 20 hours'. Between that and Tim Ferris' 'The 4-hour work week', I wasn't sure I could add anything particularly useful.

My approach shifted to simply creating space in my day, and in my head. And seeing what happened. My goals narrowed from the other interview question 'Where do you see yourself in 5 years time', to how can I just have a great day. I heard Tim Minchin's talk on micro-ambition and it resonated with me. I had always had very long term plans. I wanted to learn to write. I decided to day that. By writing.

One thing that happened with the space is that I don't think it is about getting answers. It may not even be about seeing patterns. One of the most powerful stories of the last year came from two sources, both connected to two extended family members I hadn't spent much time with. One is my cousin Charles who is a chronic pain psychologist. He helps people to stop trying to fix things. By accepting that pain is chronic, they are able to make mental space to look beyond the pain. The pain just is. But it isn't more. The other part of the story came from Morfar (literally mother's father. My cousin's wife's Dad*). Morfar had experienced chronic pain throughout his life because of gallstones and has the Swedish record for the most removed over a lifetime. He is a very positive, very friendly man who has learned to cope.

So I don't think the point is to figure out some secret to happiness. Or to spot a pattern that may lead to an insight that will change peoples lives. I think the point is to accept things. To value people. To do the best you can. The world is rich with connections that matter.


*The Swedes are very literal in their names. The Stockholm 'cousin' I was visiting's Father is my Grandfather's cousin. Introducing me to the Vikings was awkward.
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