You Are Stronger Than Your Pain

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition”

Adversity is a reasonably simple concept. It’s an event, situation or thing that challenges you and makes life more difficult. It can vary in length, intensity or unpleasantness.

For some, it’s losing a parent. For others, it’s struggling with maths. Whatever it is, let’s start off by refusing to compare our situations to other people’s. It’s a pointless exercise. 

I want to show you that you are stronger than your pain. You are greater than it. For two main reasons.

  1. You are more than your pain.
  2. You can become better because of your pain.

My goal is to show you that this needn’t be a silly platitude. It is not about reading a quote about overcoming adversity, feel invigorated for a fleeting moment, then continue to feel defeated by the misfortune life has offered.

I want you to believe this because it’s true.

I

First, let’s admit that painful challenges life throws at us can really really suck. Ignoring that fact would be stupid. Yes, some things “aren’t that bad” when you put them into the perspective of other people or place them into the grandness of the universe. However, this misses an important point.

Some events are challenges and important ones because you’re experiencing them. Adversity might be the villain in your personal story. Does the existence of millions of other stories invalidate your own? Of course not. Continually dismissing problems as insignificant just prevents us from approaching them head on.

Adversity can not only feel like they’ve consumed you completely but actually consume you. They can be the only things on your mind for hours, days and weeks on end. Anyone who has faced a significant challenge knows exactly what this is like. Everything you do in your life comes back to this pain.

The pain just seems to last forever.

However, the first step to understanding why you are stronger than your pain is to understand that you are more than your pain.

What does this mean?

Pain is not the only part of our lives. Our pain plays a marvelous trick on all of us – it convinces us that the good in our day does not matter. Or worse yet, that good doesn’t exist at all.

This forces us to create unhelpful thinking habits which skew our ideas of reality negatively and create a vicious cycle of catastrophic thinking. An example of this is disqualifying the positive and over-generalising.

Let’s say you struggle with maths. You fail a maths test, try again and fail again. When you have the habit of dishonestly assessing your own efforts, you’ll miss that trying again at something you currently suck at is a positive step. You can be proud of the things you control and your effort is one of those things.

There are also aspects of your life that aren’t related to your problem.

If you wake up and have a good breakfast or see a friend smile, that’s an example of experiencing something other than your pain. The catastrophizer in you will continue to say nothing is good in life and everything sucks without ever pausing to catch the good in the day. Of course, the good things can be so small they’re easy to miss but with practice, it becomes easier.

For me, it’s making my bed once a day. It’s a very small thing but it shows me two things.

First, I’ve experienced something other than just being in pain.

Second, it is me who has demonstrated control over something in my day. Not the pain.

Putting our days into context helps show us that there’s more to our lives than pain. This cannot be misinterpreted as purposefully ignoring pain or believing in good things just because for the sake of it.

Pain, adversity, challenges, difficulty. Many events can be tough or extremely limiting but we must remember:

We are more than our pain.

II

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition”

In the dark depths of adversity, it can almost be insulting to suggest life can improve not only despite the challenge but because of it.

To understand this, it is helpful to return to the idea of adversity. It is something that prevents us from continuing in the path we are currently walking down. Adversity makes life more difficult.

In order to move past this obstacle, we either wait for it to pass or resolve to do something about it.

Choosing to wait is the easiest option but completely removes the autonomy that we have over our own lives. It also guarantees nothing.

Resolving to do something about it is difficult but at least opens the option for having some control over the problem.

Let’s assume we’re going to take some action. We’ll return to the struggling mathematician. You want to get better but understand that you don’t currently have the skills to tackle certain maths problems. Your teacher isn’t helpful because she doesn’t care.

Struggling mathematician then decides to go online and use a large variety of resources to get better at certain problems. In the process, she begins to focus harder and with fewer distractions. She takes the test again and passes.

Did she succeed in spite of her disinterested teacher or because of her?

Both. Her rubbish teacher did nothing to help but her absence also showed the student that she is capable of getting better at maths even if it required a harder route. This route also helped her improve her focus and confidence. As a result, she has become better because of her adversity.

As Ryan Halliday says in The Obstacle is the Way:

Blessings and burdens aren’t mutually exclusive terms.

This is a very simplified example but it is meant to show that with some honest self-assessment, we can find skills that we’ve developed because of adversity. Even if that is slowly building up your mental resilience when something goes wrong.

Adversity offers us a challenge. To get past the challenge, we have to develop certain skills, mindsets or habits to get through. Without the challenge in the first place, we will be perfectly fine walking an easy but less satisfying path.

We can become better because of our pain.

III

How you can help others.

Earlier, I lied. There are three sections not two.

Adversity is also not simple. The statement “you are stronger than your pain” is, to me, true because there are many reasons to believe we are not solely defined by adversity and we can often get through it if we plan our approach, let fear pass and occasionally utilise some Sisu.

There is one thing I haven’t mentioned.

Other people.

“You” don’t have to be alone when it comes to facing pain. A lot of the time, the help of other people is much more beneficial than anything you can expect from trying to force your way through life with brute willpower.

With this in mind, you can also be the helping hand for others too.

One of the mantras I try to inject into my day is to add value to other people’s lives. Sometimes that comes from writing these blog posts. Most of the time, it comes from being absolutely hilarious.

Screenshot (30)

Whatever help you give, it will be valued. Sometimes not explicitly but that’s OK. The aim isn’t to help others in order to be congratulated.

And that brings me to the end.

I want you to sincerely believe that you are stronger than your pain because you are.

You are more than your pain.

You are not solely defined by pain.

You can become better because of your pain.

You are stronger than your pain.

I promise.


 

Are there any challenges you’re currently facing?

As always, thanks for reading.

I have social media! Follow them if you want. It’s pretty great occassionally.

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The Sunday Monday Post | I Can Swim

I thought I’d start the Sunday Monday Post so I can to talk more loosely about the things I’ve enjoyed within the self-improvement sphere and how I think I’ve improved in the past week (or since the time of the last edition).

It won’t be a very structured article and will probably involve more jokes than  are necessary. However, you probably won’t notice them because I’m not very funny. If I say I’ve told a joke then you need to laugh to make sure I don’t cry.

Thanks.

Nonetheless, let me think about what’s happened to me this week

I have great amazing unbelievable news.

I can swim.

As in, when I go into the water and try to move forward I don’t begin to drown straight away or wonder why I decided to ever even think about getting wet with chlorine in the first place. I actually move forward (or backwards because I can do the backstroke too. Just saying.) It’s fascinating.

When I first moved through the water without touching the floor, I nearly punched the pool wall because I was so excited that it happened. I’ve only had four lessons so I didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did.  Then I tried again but drank far too much pool water. Then I tried again, made a few changes, then I stopped drinking an excessive amount of pool water. But then I might make a different mistake like not actually kicking my legs. Then I’d go again.

But at least I’d be making small changes every time I came to stop. It made the whole swimming thing much easier to manage than trying to complete everything at once. Nonetheless, at the end of the session, I was swimming a decent amount. I can’t do it very far or for very long but it’s much better than the way I was like 15 years ago.

Any time I’d try to get into the water, I’d just flail around, it’d take me forever to progress onto the floats but as soon as I had to support the majority of my body weight, it’d be like my body mass tripled and rather than moving forward through the water, I’d just move down.

Let’s forget the general idea that humans actually float in the water or the fact that you can stand up in training pools. I couldn’t do either. I’d just be dead for the most part.

But now, I don’t die. I just swim for a bit and die a bit later.

To commemorate this moment, I drew a bunch of pictures: Screenshot (20)Screenshot (21)Screenshot (23)Screenshot (24)

Before my swimming lessons, I found a few different swimming tutorials which gave a few pointers on how to get over the fear of water.

Screenshot (25)

I started to break down the different parts of swimming practiced them individually (though, I always tried to breathe). It made swimming much more manageable.

Screenshot (26)

I’ve conquered years and years of fears by learning how to swim. I’m not very good but that’s OK. I’ve taken the first step. Now I can continue working on swimming and improving slowly in the process.

And dammit I’m proud.


As always, thanks for reading :)

I have facebook and twitter. Check them out @improvingslowly

Yes this is on a Tuesday. No, I don’t know why. 

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Should I be so angry? – Dissertation pt. 4

Another one? I did say it would a six part series. I’ve shown (hopefully) that it can be appropriate to be angry at an impairment (for being disabling) and now move onto asking whether you should be angry.

I enjoyed writing this section. Interesting stuff. In fact, I’d say all of it is interesting but I’m not reliable since I wrote it.

Maybe my next essay will be “Can I be too humble?”.  Anyway, although it’s the longest section, enjoy the rest of the argument :)

The previous posts:

The Two Models of Disability (part 1)

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions and Flourishing (part 2)

Here’s What It Means to be Angry (part 3)


 

I have established an important premise in my argument. It can be appropriate to be angry at an impairment and its disabling nature. This emphasised with the knowledge that disabling factors cannot always or completely be attributed to the poor design of society. However, because of this, if we accept the social model of disability, it does not regard these emotions as legitimate because impairments cannot cause these problems. One move left to be made is for the social model proponent to argue that you should not be angry because it is counter-productive or useless.

If it is established that you should not be angry at your impairment, then it matters much less whether it is appropriate to be so. The social model theorist could claim to only be concerned with the times you should be angry rather than trying to accommodate for ‘appropriate’ ones. I will now explain the objections to being angry.

“Anger is harmful and offers no new knowledge”

Opposition to anger has a long history going back to ancient philosophers such as Seneca and the tradition has come in more modern forms. Seneca had this to say about anger:

The other emotions have in them some element of peace and calm, while this one is wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it (1928, Essay 1-107)

Although our modern conceptions of anger do not need to be encoded with the desire to have revenge, this is still an important idea. Anger is said to harm the person who is angry and “Anger embodies nothing useful” (ibid. Essay 1-129). This is quite damning because it makes anger seem like the most useless of emotions and we definitely should not experience. In the context of a disability, anger would be an emotion which makes the experience of disability worse by intensifying the limitations one experiences.

Glen Pettigrove and Koji Tanaka (2014) helpfully point out some more opposition to anger in the Buddhist tradition. Santideva argues a few interesting points.

  • Anger is pointless (Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life vi. 10)
  • Anger presupposes a confused, unduly partial perspective, which gives exaggerated weight to my perceived interests and insufficient weight to the interests of others (vi. 4-5).

Here, again, the discussion of anger is agent centred but the objection can still hold if we do not consider the insufficient weight to the interests of others. Rather it can be interpreted as not taking enough consideration of:

  • Our own interests (to not feel worse because of our disability).
  • How we think our bodies and lives ought to be.

With this, we should not be angry because we have a misguided perspective on what the actual significance of the effect disability has on our lives. This will be important for the future discussion but I will explain briefly a more modern form of opposition to anger.

Pettigrove and Tanaka (2014), in one of their many points, argue that anger is not particularly epistemically useful. They argue and present evidence for the fact that anger is regularly misleading with respect to its proper object and unrelated objects which may follow (p.281). They present the case that anger often leads people to participate in biased, heuristic-reasoning and become less likely to accept evidence which is contrary to their view (p.280)[1]. Moreover, they cite Randolph Nesse (2005) in saying that anger works on the smoke detector principle – meaning it generates more false alarms than true ones. In place of anger in political contexts, Pettigrove promotes meekness as a virtue (Pettigrove, 2012).

This counter-productivity critique is arguably more potent with respect to disability than related discussions about anger towards other agents or political systems. When discussing other people and public policy, we have a greater ability to control the object (people, public policy, etc.) and direct it to productive change. If I am angry that a building does not accommodate for people with mobility concerns, then I can demand that the building managers make appropriate changes where they can. As I mentioned earlier, the social model snuggly fits into the notion of agent-centred anger. In contrast to disability and impairment, it is more difficult to see how anger might lead to productive change. It may force to me to demand a cure but that involves making claims against others. What this says is that anger might be so counter-productive because it is futile. It is directed towards an almost inert object and that fact alone might exaggerate the anger even further.

There are more different forms of oppositions to anger but they usually take a politicised form which Srinivasan (2015) discusses in great detail. However, I wish to focus only on the idea that one should not be angry because it is counter-productive, does not contain useful information and it harms you.

I will tackle the first two arguments together. In response to these criticisms of anger, I argue that the experience of anger can be very epistemically productive. It gives us knowledge which might have been hidden to us before. In the context of agent-centred anger, one might become angry at an injustice which you did not realise was a problem.

In the context of disability, I will aim to demonstrate the epistemic productivity of anger by showing its productivity parallels well with realising injustice in political situations. In the 1950s and 60s,  Malcom X was seen as a very angry figure who was too radical not only in his aims but approaches to achieving them, especially when contrasted with his calmer contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. His anger came from the historical and continued racial injustice committed by White Americans against Black Americans spanning hundreds of years. With this, we can see that the experience of an injustice or unfairness can cause anger. As a result, the experience of anger led to the knowledge they are experiencing injustice.

The knowledge granted by emotions in the previous example can be had with impairments. If someone suffers from chronic pain, they might come to realise that the reason why they are angry with their progression is because pain is very limiting. Then the anger is epistemically productive because it grants the knowledge that pain is disabling (rather than just not trying hard enough for example). Our bodies and knowledge of impairments are intimately tied to one another even though we can get things wrong about our own bodies. Being limited by your body, can be a very obvious experience for we are always experiencing what it feels like to use our bodies. We can have simple knowledge of it (i.e. ‘I cannot hear’ or ‘I am in continuous pain’) but that alone does not always signify a limitation because some do not view impairments as necessarily limiting[2]. When an impairment becomes disabling, then it might trigger anger and cause us to say “this impairment is harming me and places a significant limit on me”.

Therefore, anger contains useful information about impairments and the fact they can be disabling when we realise that it limits us from achieving significant life projects. A few points need to be emphasised. First, the notion of unfairness is important and must be remembered otherwise there is the risk of saying anything which prevents you from getting what you want can be appropriately responded to with anger. Secondly, the idea of significant life projects will be clarified. This notion is connected to the concept of Eudaimonia and personal flourishing. Meaning if personal flourishing is significantly limited by the impairment, this is usually regarded as disabling. Moreover, this might reflect things that nearly all humans desire for themselves (such as not being in pain or being able to recognise faces). Generally, this limitation will be long-term and have a near continuous presence in their everyday lives. Of course, people can dramatically change their goals and no longer view their impairment as a limit but as a reason for their flourishing. This is consistent with my argument.

I want to emphasise the focus on non-agent-centred anger versus agent-centred anger. Problems such as structural racism and sexism have a root cause in other people causing oppression by placing limits on others and causing harms. In this sense, society is disabling. However, with impairments being disabling, while society can be the cause of disability, it is not sufficient. An impairment can cause disability by placing limits on the person and causing harm without involving other people.

This is an important move for a few reasons. First, it means that disabilities which have no clear social remedies (this does not include curing the impairment) can be understood through the emotional experience of it. Perhaps another claim which follows is that emotions can contain valuable epistemic information. Disabilities such as chronic pain and fatigue often prevent people from achieving significant life projects, even if those projects are to not be in consistent pain or simply live a life without this general reduction in well-being.

A brief counter to whether one should or should not be angry might take the following form:

If one is learning how to walk, and they become angry because they find it very difficult, it might be responded that they should not be harsh on themselves.

However, while it may have good intentions, it can be misguided. They might respond by saying they are not angry at themselves because they are at no fault. They are angry that their impairment is preventing them from walking.

It might also be argued “do not be angry at things you cannot control.” If we cannot control the state of our disability, then we should not be angry at all. I ask that you recall the condition of significance and Eudaimonia in the discussion of emotions earlier. I could be angry because it is something I cannot control and feel I ought to be able to. For example, I myself cannot directly control whether systematic racism continues to exist or not and the fact it does exist, makes me angry. On the other hand, I cannot control whether the buses are on time (or show up at all) but the promptness of buses is much less significant to my life projects than experiencing racism is. Here it can be seen that the significance of the event can help us understand whether one should or should not be angry. If the event ends up being insignificant on a bigger picture, then there may be no need. On the other hand, if it remains significant to your life, then it is easier to deflect the criticism that you should not be angry.

Secondly, given the information that anger does contain, it prevents the social model theorist from attempting to explain away the emotional experience towards their body by explaining everything in terms of societal oppression. If a person is blind and is angry they cannot see anymore, it would be irresponsible to dismiss it by attempting to explain it solely in terms of what society has not done for them. It is true that society could do much more to help them navigate the world properly. It is not true that their projects are to simply being able to navigate the world nor should that be their only project or desire. They can be much more complex and personal. A blind person may want to see their child and their body prevents that from happening.

The third objection – anger is harmful – stands up better in face of criticism. It is plausible to believe that anger does make the experience of disability worse. Largely because it brings a negative section of your life to centre stage and makes you engage with it intensely. When one is angry, it is rarely a passive engagement between you and the object and thus can decrease well-being quite substantially. If something harms you, you wish not to be harmed then you ought not to be angry. Yet, I do not think this is enough to establish that one should not be angry. This is strengthened by the above points on the epistemic productivity of anger and leads to a different argument – does it matter if one should not be angry?

There is something to be said about whether someone ‘should’ be angry at an impairment or anything at all. Here, the separation between the ‘can’ and the ‘should’ becomes important. Anger (and other emotions) do not need to be justified solely in terms of their productivity or in terms of how they influence your well-being. If one is angry at a moral violation then that explains and justifies their anger. Remarking they should not be angry does not address the reason for their anger but says their reaction to it is mistaken. This is a problematic response because ignoring the reason for the anger is a perfect way to undermine personal testimony. This is undermined without reference to their reasons for being angry but the thought that one should not be angry for the reasons discussed above. It is enough that it is apt even if we have a case of apt counter-productive anger (Srinivasan, 2015, p.20).

So far I have argued that the criticisms of whether we should be angry fail. One last qualification needs to be made. I am not arguing that there is an obligation to be angry at an impairment even if it would be appropriate to be. Rather, if a person is angry, it not easily dismissed as counter-productive or being too harmful to be useful. With this, the social model of disability excludes anger as an appropriate emotional response to impairment which is an important mistake.


[1] Interestingly enough, they also argue (as Seneca does) that anger characteristically contains the desire to lash out at whatever has wronged you. This is a mistaken addition for a two main reasons. 1) Modern conceptions of anger do not need to contain that condition and you especially would not be justified in doing so simply because you are also justified in being angry. See Myles Burnyeat’s rejection of this (2002) and 2) given the earlier establishment that you can be angry at an impairment, there is no person to be angry at in this case.

[2] It is worthwhile to note the idea that impairment can also be socially determined. If this is true, then people might not find impairments limiting because society has not caused whatever biological factor in question to be a limitation. See Shakespeare (2006).


 

If you’ve made it this far, thanks. I hope you enjoyed the argument.

Do you think anger is useful? 

For long time readers of the blog (and people with the memories of the-opposite-of-a-goldfish) you might recall me writing this about anger. Do you think I’ve contradicted myself?

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions and Flourishing – Dissertation pt. 2

This is the second part of my dissertation talking about the social model of disability and emotions.

In part 1, I said what I’m going to do with my argument and did some of it. I defined the social model and medical model of disability.

Now I move onto explaining a framework to understand emotions…


 

It is important to have a framework to understand emotions if we are to understand the role of emotions in the experience of disability.  Martha Nussbaum offers this in The Upheavals of Thought. This account will generally be assumed true. I do not think the account is flawless but my argument does not fail completely if Nussbaum’s account is deemed unsuccessful.[1]

To Nussbaum, emotions are best conceived of as thoughts or cognitions. Her view is ‘neo-stoic’ as she draws greatly from the stoic accounts offered by Seneca and other ancient philosophers. Cognitions, Nussbaum argues, are necessary and sufficient for emotions (Nussbaum, 2001, pp.56- 58). Rather than simply being unthinking things which ‘push rather than pull’ us around, emotions always involve thought of an object combined with the thought of its importance (ibid. p.23). This is the first two conditions – they have objects and a thought about how important that object is. For an emotion to have an object, it means that it has some kind of target that is in the world and is about something (ibid. p.27). For example, someone might have an emotion because of an object o, in virtue of o, about o or that proposition p.

Secondly, they are intentional. Meaning they are full of value judgements about the object in relation to the person experiencing the emotions. Rather than being directed towards an object like an arrow is pointed towards its target and let go (ibid., p.27), it is almost like casting a fishing line out to the sea, latching onto something important and experiencing where that object stands in relation to yourself. Therefore, although emotions are argued to be thoughts, it is important to make clear that emotions are partial and ‘requires seeing the object […] through my own window’ (ibid. p.28). This has interesting implications for how to conceive of emotions. One to consider is whether an emotion can inappropriately respond to an object or event. There is definitely space to say yes as people can overreact to events but this then raises the question of when the interpretation of significance is misguided or correct. This will be discussed in relation to anger later in the next section.

The third condition is that they form beliefs about the object (ibid. 28). For example, if I fear snakes, I believe there is danger and that is because of the snakes. Moreover, the fear is present because I believe the possibility of danger is significant. With regards to belief then, emotions and their beliefs have some relationship to propositional content. If I am sad because I believe my dad died but he is actually alive then the content of my emotion is ‘false’. However, I will follow Nussbaum’s path in referring to such examples as ‘inappropriate’ because false implies something much harsher and discredits the emotion completely (ibid. p.46).

In close relation to this point is the notion of value perceived in objects. Under this account they are Eudaimonistic – they make direct reference to the person’s own flourishing (ibid. pp.30 – 33). Whatever the person considers of intrinsic value to their own life, whether it is because it affects her well-being or personal projects, emotions capture that significance. We must not mistake Eudaimonia with simple utilitarianism or ‘happiness’ but rather it takes for one to view their life as complete. (ibid. pp.32-33). This is consistent with the idea that emotions are very partial and they make judgements based on how they relate to our own life projects.

Assuming this framework is true, I will now discuss anger and its relationship to the social model of disability.

[1] See Cates (2009) or Griffiths (1997) for opposing views.


 

How do you think emotions are best understood? 

Thanks for reading!

July Reading List

Suddenly, two months turns into eight. I don’t know how it happened but it did. I promise I’ve been reading though. Here are the previous reading lists:

October reading list

August reading list

Onto the current books…

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Cal writes a blog over called Study Hacks over at calnewport.com and I’ve been following his work for a few years. Over the past year or so, he’s become really interested in learning how we can focus more by employing what he calls “deep work”. He defines it as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

The alternative, shallow work, is the opposite. Non-demanding tasks which are often performed while distracted and easy to replicate. The plight of every student around – writing an essay with Facebook in the background.

Originally, I thought that there cannot be much to say about concentrating really hard on really tough work for a really long time. After all, the crux of the book might be seen as ‘get rid of distractions and get to work’ but there’s much more to it. He goes through multiple tactics to increasing the amount of “deep work” you can get out of the day (it’s very limited since it’s quite tough. So don’t expect eight hours straight away) and why “deep work” is valuable both in a professional and personal sense.

After spending some time with the book and trying to increase my deep work (so I have to work less during the day), I found that it became much easier to do and resulted in a decent dissertation effort towards the end of my degree. More importantly, I found that this sort of stuff can be improved through training (and lost through the lack of it). Much like meditation.

I hope to share some of the things I’ve learned about working more efficiently but here’s one huge take away he loves to talk about – email is not important. Stop checking it so often.

If you do any kind of academic or creative work, you’ll benefit greatly from Deep Work. 

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield is my Canadian dad.

I’m not sure how that’s possible but I want it to be, so it is.

An astronaut with decades of life experience writes about how to live on earth. One hugely desirable virtue of Chris’s writing style is that he gives advice without sounding patronising and without the slightest hint of superiority over the reader. What you see is a character who is confident in his skills and abilities because of his experience in space.

Each chapter goes through a lesson he’s learned from his hours in space and showing us a moment in time where it applies. The great thing about these ‘lessons’ is how applicable they are to a multitude of problems we have in every day scenarios. He might say “prepare for the worst” in the context of crying in space (without gravity, tears don’t fall to the ground – they just ball up at the front of your eyes) or falling down a flight of stairs in front of loads of people where everyone is too far away to help but close enough to see (my tears fell to the ground perfectly. Thanks for asking).

Despite being an astronaut and being closer to the stars than most of us ever will, he seems to be very well grounded. The advice he offers is enclosed in funny and interesting stories that can entertain even the most apathetic about space.

He’s achieved a lot in his life but despite the magnitude of what he’s done, it isn’t discouraging. He inspires others to do the same.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

When I moved home, I started using the library more and came across a book called Jimmy Coates: Killer by Joe Craig. I fell in love with that book and the whole series. I’d stay up reading it and be too tired for school. When I’d write a story in class, I’d steal half my themes from the books and brand myself a literary genius.

I even emailed Joe saying that he’s awesome and can’t wait for his next book to come out. (I’m so glad I’ve stopped ending emails with “please reply, bye (a great fan)”.)

Ready Player One is probably the closest I’ve come to feeling that way again. The content isn’t similar but the pace and overall feel is just fantastic. I always wanted to know what happened next but also caught myself wanting to slow down and appreciate feeling so excited about a story again.

“Oh this chapter isn’t too short, you can read until the end. It’ll be the last one.”

The last time I lied to myself that much, I said I’d start my dissertation “today”.

Honourable mentions:

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh – This book feels so nice. Seriously, go touch this book, you’ll understand what I mean. It feels brilliant. The stuff inside is also hilarious.

Empathy by Roman Krznaric

Better by Atul Gawande

Do you have any book recommendations? Share them below! 


 

I’ve remembered I have a ill-used twitter account (@improvingslowly go follow it because it’s probably great).

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Prioritise like Warren Buffett

Here’s the oft cited story*

Buffett was talking to his pilot and asked him to write down the top 25 things he wanted to accomplish either in a few years or his lifetime.

“What 5 are the most important?” he asked.

This is a terribly difficult task and he took some time trying to decide his top 5 priorities – the accomplishments he wanted the most.

“But what about the other 20? What will you do with them?”

The pilot said that the other 20 aren’t as important but they’re a close second and he’ll work on them when he has time.

Warren then said that he’s made a mistake. Everything he didn’t pick as his top five gets no attention at all until his top five priorities have been accomplished.

No prioritisation = nothing gets done

If we don’t assign any kind of importance to our tasks, everything is of equal importance and urgency. You have a lot of choice but no way to determine which one you should start on first. Therefore, you spend a lot of time trying to decide rather than working on something important.

If you do happen to choose, without clear priorities, it’s easy to abandon the project because we wish to start a different one.

This useless dabbling can’t be taken too literally because we all prioritise some way simply by virtue of doing something. If I watch videos, at that time, my behaviour is indicates that videos is what deserves my attention.

While our behaviour seems to point towards our actual priorities, our actions doesn’t always match our desires. Meaning, we don’t prioritise too well.

Although I spend my time watching videos, it doesn’t mean I want to spend my time that way.

Ruthless Prioritisation

Prioritisation should be ruthless.

It involves saying no to tasks you don’t need to complete and some things you want to complete. It asks you to close the door to things you hold dear so you can spend more time with the most important things. Saying no to yourself when the tasks seem so important almost feels like you’re not giving yourself the best chance possible.

Why not do everything instead?

It increases our chance of doing less. Doing everything means we spread our focus and energy very thin. It leads to incomplete to-do lists and accompanying feelings of guilt.

So why does this technique work?

It emphasises simplicity.

By removing the things we don’t need to do and the activities which fall under the category of ‘it would be nice to do some day’, we free up a lot of mental space and reduce our levels of stress considerably.

It’s much more satisfying than blaming the lack of time because it isn’t a great excuse.

You can’t get more time in a day by asking the clock gods to make one hour 100 minutes long rather than 60 minutes. You make more time by removing the inessential and focusing on the important stuff in life.

I mentioned the term ruthless prioritisation because it involves closing the door to some things you have a desire to do and focusing as much as you can on a smaller number of important tasks.

In theory, this is difficult. In practice, it’s even more so.

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. “If I don’t do it, so what?”

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you didn’t make this a top priority?

What happens if it’s not completed?

For the vast majority of things, nothing significant happens. Otherwise, they’d be urgent priorities we’d devote a lot of time and energy to anyway.

I’ve said, along with millions of others that I want to learn a language. It was one of those ‘terribly important things I must do’ but somehow never devoted any time to.

“I should really get round to that”

“I’ll do it someday”

Have you said any of these things before?

Useless statements. They didn’t inspire action because they created an obligation that didn’t have any criteria for completion. They did, however, make me angry at my inaction.

What was I really saying? “I should really get round to it but I won’t”.

Admit it isn’t a priority or make it one. Let the self-imposed guilt will fall away.

  1. Stars, asterisks and scribbles

On your to-do list, write out a list of tasks you want to complete and put an asterisk next to the task you deem most important.

What does important mean in this context?

If you completed this and nothing else, the day is still a success. Everything else is just a bonus.

I found it helpful to be generous when doing this. Writing a long list and making everything a priority increases the standard for success very high but is often unhelpful. It increases self-criticism rather than your ability to complete more.

  1. Priorities change

After hearing about prioritisation and saying no to things, it might be tempting to think priorities can’t change.

They can and probably will.

Focusing on a task and deciding you don’t want to continue is a much better way of making choices than dabbling in a lot of things and never giving yourself the chance say no.

Here’s an example: Reading part of one book and choosing to stop reading is much better than skimming the pages and never understanding if you like the book or not.

Finding what is most important is difficult. And that’s normal.

I frequently find myself having too many options and needing to reassess what is important to me. Sometimes the list stays the same. Sometimes, it changes. It doesn’t always mean something is going wrong.

It’s often a simple indication that I’m changing my mind – which, admittedly, can be uncomfortable.

Letting go of fake obligations and priorities made handling feelings of guilt and indecisiveness much easier. I stopped being pulled in different directions and I could focus on the things I really wanted to do.

Proper prioritisation takes time. Often you’ll need a small reminder of your priorities rather than resorting back to spreading yourself too thin.

Prioritise the important and remove the distractions.

Find peace in focus.

What will you decide not to do?


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* As with a lot of stories about famous people, they aren’t sourced very well at all. I have no reason to believe that it actually happened any more than the Einstein story. Luckily, this story is merely a way to make the value of prioritisation more personal.

The story is from Live Your Legend.

Quiet Courage

My sister recently started university and seems to be having a good time. She has friends and made a good effort to meet new people.

The person most surprised at this is probably her.

Weeks prior to starting university she came into my room many times, sometimes at night, to say:

“What if I won’t make friends?”

“What if no one likes me?”

And so on.

The thing is, she’s very friendly and when she wants to be, she has a higher than 50% chance at being funny. When she does finally talk to people, the conversations don’t end in one person on fire and the other in tears. They’re fairly normal.

This, she didn’t believe. Even up to the point when we were saying goodbye, she voiced doubts about making friends and having a good time. Before she walked away, my mum started pointing out people she could talk to as if she planted people in the crowd to make the start of university easier.

Goodbyes were said and she walked away. But she didn’t dart to her right and run upstairs into her room. She joined a group of people and started talking.

Quiet courage

This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. All she did was say hello and not fall on the floor. She probably doesn’t think it’s a big deal but that doesn’t take away from what happened.

She had a small fear: she’s not going to make friends. It was at the forefront of her mind up until she said hello.

She stepped over this barrier and continued forward despite of the fear hanging around in the back of her head.

Not all courage needs to be loud.

Courage isn’t limited to those who have faced great adversity such as overcoming cancer, giving a speech in front of thousands of people or charging into battle in the front line. Nor is it limited to firefighters, surgeons or police officers. It’s something all of us exhibit.

It involves facing small fears we may have such as talking to new people, asking for help even if you think pride stops you or remaining persistent with something even though you’re not too good.

Since this courage doesn’t demand great attention from others, it’s easy to go unnoticed. Even to the person who exhibits it. It might be dismissed as something too small to be proud of.

Such dismissal might take the form of: “If Mary did [enter grand event here] why should I be proud of talking to a new person?”

Thankfully, there are many examples of quiet courage that we should take time to appreciate. Here are some examples I’ve seen in a few of my own friends.

  • She used to be overly critical about herself and university grades. Now she practises much more compassion.
  • He joined a group to help with weight-loss.
  • She started sharing her work with friends.
  • She told her business idea to non-friends and admitted it’s something she wants to pursue.

There are more examples of this that can very easily swim around unnoticed and you can probably find examples like this among your own friends. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find it in yourself too.

Why is it important?

It’s remarkably easy to be harsh on ourselves.

If we do something wrong, it’s because of our flawed character. If a friend does the same thing, we don’t subject them to the same criticism. Not just because we don’t want to lose a friend but because that criticism wouldn’t be true.

Noticing and appreciating quiet courage helps remove us from the negative and often exaggerated thoughts we might have of ourselves. Doing so moves us closer to self-compassion and further from self-criticism.

It’s a welcome change noticing a small thing you can be proud of. Even if we aren’t bothered by self-criticism, it’s a good exercise in catching the good in ourselves and other people. If we do find ourselves in tough times, appreciating the good in small things is an unbelievably valuable thing to do.

It’s OK to appreciate our own examples of quiet courage.

You don’t need to scream from the top of our lungs “I spoke to someone new!” every time you make steps to beating social anxiety but you can congratulate yourself. It acts as small encouragement to keep trying. Which is, of course, the best we can do.

But if you do want to scream your encouragements to the world, please do. Just not in my ear.


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Should You Follow Your Own Advice?

The first answer seems to be yes. If you’re giving advice, you must think it’s good to follow therefore you should too.

I don’t think the answer is obvious. There are situations when you can give advice without following it yourself and still be in a good position.

Unpacking the question of whether you should follow your own advice is valuable in a few ways. The first is that it’s  interesting (to me, at least) and second, it gives us the chance to think about whether the advice we’re giving is useful.

Not following your own advice

There are a number of situations when not following your own advice is perfectly fine or even the right thing to do.

In 2005, Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech at Stanford. He said to the students ‘follow your heart’. That advice, as argued by Cal Newport, he didn’t follow. He didn’t seem to be the most passionate about technology or start-ups but ended up becoming a leading influence within technology and his effects are still felt today.

Whether or not this argument is convincing, similar things happen to other people. Leo Babauta recently admitted he’d stopped focusing on single tasks (although he wants to return) and still produces great work every day.

Despite writing Create Without Expectation, I still find it difficult to rid myself of paralysing expectations to do well.

You’ve probably given advice, not followed it, yet still achieved what you want.

In these examples, there are two themes.

In the example of Leo, he’s graduated his advice and can now handle more than the person he’s giving his advice to.

He’s no longer like the person he’s advising.

This doesn’t need to be elitist. When we start learning maths, we’re taught techniques that a teacher would no longer use. The advice is still valuable for the beginner but not for the advanced person.

If a person is sufficiently advanced enough to know the effects of following the advice, they can give advice without following it themselves. For example, fat dietitians or personal trainers can still give useful advice about losing weight and doing proper exercises.

In the example of Steve Jobs, it’s possible that the advice simply isn’t very good, too vague or unrealistic.

Who can give advice?

Anyone.

It’s easy to give advice. There are many people who give relationship advice without ever being in a relationship or people who talk about beating procrastination despite being the worst procrastinators.

The requirement for advice giving is low.

A lot of advice seems to be personal experience with a self-proclaimed detachment from the situation. Personal experience adds credibility because we then know that it’s at least worked for one person and that person has no reason to lie to us (assuming they’re trusted). Objectivity helps because they can analyse the situation a few more ways than you might have yourself.

Following advice, even if it’s good, is harder. The advice giver is nearly in opposition to the person receiving it. They are attached to the situation and the problem becomes very personal to them when the advice giver tends to be very detached.

“When we think about other people, and what might be right for them, it’s a lot easier to see them as the big picture. It’s much harder to apply that big-picture perspective to ourselves.”

Hal Hershfield

It’s when advice giving and advice reception is complementary we make progress. In order to make these two position complementary, I’ve found it helpful to reduce the importance of objectivity and practice more empathy.

How should we give advice?

Advice can still be good without the advice giver following it themselves. Different situations often demand different types of advice.

However, what seems to be more likely is that by giving advice to other people, you’re giving advice to yourself. This means you’re in similar positions. Should you follow your own advice in this situation? Yes, if you have some desire to change.

If you can’t, it might speak to the quality of advice you’re giving. Which brings us to why the question is helpful.

If you can’t follow your own advice yet give it to others, the advice could either be bad, too simplified or irrelevant.

It’s easy to give lazy or ‘just-do-it’ advice.

  • Just start working
  • Just save more
  • Just stop eating so much

Simple advice, right? Sometimes helpful but rarely does it inspire much action. It’s easy to give because it negates the problem and packages it as a helpful answer.  Most importantly, it distances us from the problem – reducing our likelihood of being empathetic when helping others.

We probably don’t aim to be dismissive when giving such advice but I’ve found it’s useful to make a greater effort to refrain from giving dismissive advice.

“Once you understand something, it is difficult to remember what it was like not to understand it”.

Peter Lipton

When we’ve overcome a problem, it’s tough to appreciate how it was to experience it.

If we’ve lost weight, it’s unlikely the only step we followed was to ‘eat less’. It probably involved reducing portion sizes, drinking more water and taking the stairs instead of the lift.

If we’ve improved our grades, it’s unlikely that we just ‘worked more’. It may have involved setting out time for the library, taking more breaks and focusing more in class.

And so on.

This just-do-it advice tends to be a label for more detailed advice that needs to be unpacked rather than the advice to be followed. It’s easy to get the two conflated because we might not even notice the small changes we make in order to achieve the bigger goal.

Not following our own advice when we think we should, helps give an insight into why other people might not either. There’s a large difference between ‘knowing’ you should do something and feeling it. It befalls many of us.

So should you follow your own advice?

Yes, if it’s good and relevant.

By asking this question we’ve discovered that good advice can be difficult to give. It requires empathy and an effort to be attentive to the problem rather than dismissive. Thankfully, asking whether we would actually follow it can be a signal towards whether it will be helpful.

It’s a good thing to try being helpful (I wouldn’t write this blog otherwise) and trying to improve how helpful you are is another goal worthy of attention.

No, if you don’t need it (or want it).

We don’t always have to follow our advice just because we’ve given it to someone else. Sometimes we don’t need it as it’s become irrelevant to our own needs or we know it’s proven to work and don’t need to apply it to our own lives.

There’s a bigger discussion about what good advice is and how to give it but I won’t start that here. I don’t know a definite answer to any of those questions.

Do you follow your own advice? Do you think you should?


 

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Further Reading:

Why don’t we take our own advice?

Your Own Advice is the Hardest Pill to Swallow

Why Is It So Hard To Take Your Own Advice?

When Your Confidence is Low

Currently, my confidence is low.

I use a walking stick and have been for a long time. My doctor said a large issue is lack of confidence rather than being solely a physical issue. So over the past few months, I’ve practised walking without it.

I’ve made progress and a few of my friends have seen me walking without it more often. A lovely feeling, I must admit.

However, over the past week, I developed a very bad limp. Suddenly, I’m so dependent on it hurts to use and I actively avoid walking if I can.

I spent some time thinking about whether I was being melancholic and concluded I wasn’t. Walking normally is bound to be very important to me.

I don’t want this hiccup to affect my future progress so I thought of a few things to help get back on the confidence train.

What is confidence?

I’ll save the philosophy for later and settle on this definition: ‘A justified demonstration of your ability’. It’s probably too simple but we can go into more depth another time. I want to focus on the ‘justified demonstration’ part.

This means that confidence can be gained. When you start something, the chances are that you won’t be great or even good. Practising will help you get better and because you’re better, your confidence in your ability increases. When I started writing, I started with the intention of becoming better. I’m not sure when I’ll say I’m good but at least my confidence is improving the more I practice.

When people lose confidence in the things they either used to enjoy or something they knew they were making progress in, it’s rarely because they’re suddenly terrible and will stay that way. They’ve lost their reasons in believing they’re good or can get better.

When I lost confidence in my walking, I kept on saying to myself that this is the beginning of the end and I’ll have to start all over again. More damning is that I’ve suddenly lost the ability to improve completely.

Rarely these things are so true to the point where we have to throw self-compassion completely out the window.

So what do we do?

Remember these 3 things:

Progress is rarely smooth

This is unfortunately easily forgotten.

It’s also too easy to believe the opposite.

Whether it’s writing an essay, losing weight, running faster or talking to more people, progress with such things have their ups and downs. That’s OK. It’s very normal.

Don’t con yourself into believing that everything needs to be moving perfectly in order to be right. As with my walking, there were always going to be times when I find it more difficult than others.

Fake it ‘til you become it

I’ve watched this Amy Cuddy talk on Body Language and confidence a number of times. The main take away for me was to fake it ‘til you become it.

At times, it can just feel false pretending to be a person who’s comfortable in with their abilities and so on but it is very helpful. It helps to justify being with happy your abilities and progress.

If you don’t know where to start, adopting what you think a confident person might do is helpful. And watch the TED talk by Amy Cuddy. Toe the line between arrogance and confidence carefully but being comfortable with yourself is valuable and worth the effort.

Keep being active

This is closely linked to the previous point.

The low confidence elephant will tell you to stop trying because you’re bad. You won’t do anything and have more reasons think you’re bad – precisely because you’re not doing anything.

The elephant wins but doesn’t give a victory speech due to lack of confidence.

It’s important to keep working towards your goal even if there’s a hit to your progress. Low confidence is a difficult circle to break out of. Forcing yourself to continue practising can feel fake. Almost like you’re always acting.

That feeling will subside and you’ll feel good about your efforts. You won’t be acting as a character you want to be. You’ll become that person.

I don’t have all the answers and this is a surprisingly difficult topic (e.g. when giving up, what’s the difference between having low confidence and being realistic?). I’m far from the most confident person in my friendship group let alone an authority on the topic. Sometimes, I feel like I’m still in the act of faking rather than being a confident person. Nonetheless, I found these reminders helpful and hopefully they will be for you too.

Why do you think confidence is valuable? How can you become more confident? I’d love to know what you think.

As always, thanks for reading.

Some other things to read:

  1. Let the Fear Pass
  2. The Highlight Reel
  3. Mindy Kaling On Confidence

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Let the Fear Pass

Fear is like a cloud.

It hovers over your head and the tasks you want to complete. But after a while, it passes and the sky becomes clear again.

When I notice myself putting something off and ask why, I tend to feel uncomfortable. Usually because there’s not much reason other than  ‘I don’t want to’. Appealing to laziness is the same thing.

Usually, the bigger the task, the greater the uncomfortable feeling. This, and generally poor energy management, is probably why students tend to leave big essays until they begin to panic about the deadlines.

I experience this feeling a lot. It often leads to potent self-criticism that only serves to make me feel bad.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to meditate on this feeling. It takes less than a minute.

What am I experiencing right now? Am I worried about what’s going to happen if I try?

More often than not, it’s fear. Either the fear of discomfort or fear of failure. Every time I catch myself experiencing these feelings, the less powerful they become.

We don’t have to fear the discomfort of trying something new because it can signal a challenge that fosters some personal growth. It’s important not to diminish this growth even if you think it’s tiny. If your challenge was to pick up dirty clothes from the floor and you surpassed it, that’s a cleaner room you didn’t have yesterday.

Neither should we fear failure to the point where it stops us from moving forward because we can only succeed at something if we try and the joy of succeeding is greater than the pain of failure.  Giving ourselves the excuse not to try is only a disservice to our abilities and passions.

Once permission is given not to be consumed by fear and not influence our actions, it passes. Just like a cloud.

As with many things, observing fear and letting it pass takes practice. I still fall victim to putting things off due to these fears as they will always pop up somewhere. It’s a normal thing and it’d be silly to expect everyone to be fearless all the time.

The goal is to move forward despite its existence.

At first, even noticing you’re afraid of something is difficult then moving past it can be a small battle. But don’t get discouraged if you notice its been victorious. Next time you’ll focus on the feeling again and it’ll become easier.

With time and practise, the fear will weaken and you will be immersed in the present moment.

***

Further Reading: 

  1. Create without expectation
  2. On Productivity and Presence
  3. What’s wrong with now?

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