What’s the Point of You?

That may be a little harsh, really what I mean is what’s your purpose? It’s a hard question for anyone to answer and it can feel a bit like a slap in the face if you don’t know. But purpose, if you can find it, is so powerful that it has positive benefits both physically and mentally. Multiple research studies have shown the outcomes of having purpose to be quite astounding including: protecting against heart disease, diminishing the impacts of Alzheimer’s, improving our ability to handle pain, mitigating depression, curbing anxiety, and also lengthening our lives. One study which looked at over 6000 people across a 14 year period found that the people who had a sense of purpose had a 15% lower chance of dying – no matter what their age. Alongside this, meaning is a major component of well-being and life satisfaction.

Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, gives a powerful example of how critical purpose is in his book The Search for Meaning. He recounts his experiences in a concentration camp and how finding meaning, in even the most brutal of experiences, kept him going and gave him a reason to live. He also interviewed hundreds of fellow prisoners, and found that those who survived the mistreatment and were able to fight back from illness all had a deeper meaning or purpose keeping them going. Frankl famously argued that within the context of normal life, people who lack meaning fill what he called the “resultant void” with hedonistic pleasures: power, materialism, obsessions, and compulsions—in other words, those things that we chase after that give us a short lived boost but which we gain no lasting satisfaction from.

So, it’s clear that purpose is critically important but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to work out. In the past, people relied on religion and culture to define their meaning. These provided a framework from which to operate, the bigger picture from which to see life. However, as the world changes some people are moving away from identifying so closely with religion and traditional cultures, and consequently purpose is no longer given to us on a plate—we have to define it for ourselves. This isn’t easy to do, and anyone who claims otherwise is misleading you.

I spoke to Jeff Weigh for his podcast ‘Perfect Imbalance’ last week and describing my own journey to discover my purpose. It’s messy a ride, it hasn’t been easy, it didn’t fall in my lap and I majorly diverted off course a few times before coming back to what I really love. I still wouldn’t say I have absolute clarity but I’m definitely along the right track. Psychological research shows that people can actually get very down looking for purpose because they have been set up to believe it should be easier to find than in reality it is. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it does takes time, effort and reflection.

My favourite illustration (aside from Frankl) of someone who has lived his life with purpose is Sir David Attenborough. His whole career has been deeply anchored on his values, making use of his strengths and preferences, all of which are critical to our personal purpose. Attenborough’s life has been centered around his devotion to the natural world and a passionate desire to communicate and share that with the general population. Now in his 90s, Attenborough is still working and enthusiastically contributing to society’s understanding of the natural world and human impacts on it. But if you look at the course his life has taken you can see it’s not been a straight line, rather it has evolved and changed as he has, adapting to both his own experiences and the changes in the world around him. When he was 20 he wouldn’t have been able to have told you what he’d be doing when he was 50, 70 or 90 but he would have been able to articulate what ‘made his heart sing’.

Finding your purpose doesn’t mean that it won’t change and evolve as you go through life. Nor does it mean you won’t sometimes get knocked off course. But like a lot of things it starts with self-awareness, taking the time to reflect (not over analyse – that’s a bad route to go down) on who you are, what you love and are passionate about, what your values are – it’s up to you to put in the effort.* And it’s not a one off, you need to keep revisiting these facets that make up who you are and taking time to think. It made sound like a bit too much work, but it’s well worth the effort. Purpose provides the guiding light that helps you see why you do what you do. Having purpose reminds you of the more meaningful side of life when you (or I or any of us) get sucked into hedonism, worrying about superficial things or getting caught up in the daily grind. It provides you with the far reaching goal on the days where you just want to give up. Having a sense of meaning in your life literally gives you a reason to get up in the morning.

* I’ve been lucky to receive a lot of positive comments on my book but one 3 star review said it’s a bit “surface level”  The book isn’t supposed to give you the answers, it’s there to guide you to finding your own answers. However you search out your meaning, if you don’t dig deep and look you won’t find. 

(Dear reviewer – most of the tools in Defining You are backed by years of research by esteemed academics e.g. the tool you refer to after saying they are “surface level” is used by the US health protection agency and in hospitals across the States and UK).

 

Extracts taken from Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

I’m talking about finding your purpose at Red Smart Women’s Week in London this Saturday 22nd September. Last day of ticket sales – 18th Sept 2018

https://hearstlive.co.uk/smartwomenweek/#1531407421503-a6e00f6d-754f

 

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References

Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science25(7), 1482-1486.

Fiona Murden (2018). Defining You. How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential. Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Viktor E. Frankl (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Image: pexels.com

What’s Your Story?

A couple of hours ago I stood waiting to get off a flight, trapped in the no mans land of disembarking the plane, waiting impatiently for the “Cabin crew prepare doors for arrival”. I looked out at the sea of faces and wondered who all these people were. Perhaps a default position of being a psychologist – I look and wonder what’s that person’s story? Where did they grow up, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, do they have a family, what are they passionate about, what do they do every day, do they like what they do? It always amazes me to see how many people there are in any given space and time, each with their own unique pattern.

Everyone has their own story, each one of us has experienced different things and lived life in a unique and personal way. Even though there are 7.4 billion people on the planet, by nature of our genes and individual interactions, the neuronal pathways in our brains – only you are you and only I am me.

So, what?

Everyone deserves respect. We know this – I mean we’re all good people with good intentions at the end of the day, right? But we can also easily forget. Caught up in our own world of busyness, of getting on to the next thing – our more primitive brain takes over and sees the faces around us as strangers and indicative of this word’s meaning as ‘strange’. (This incidentally is a natural human response that makes me feel defensive, annoyed, protective).

On my way to Zambia, in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport I went to the bathroom. I walked past the toilet attendant and thought about how it must feel to be in that room with no windows all day: flushing loos, cleaning seats, seeing people rush in and out again on their exciting adventures. And I wondered how that lady got there, what was her life story, did she even have a choice of what job she did or was it anything that would pay enough to live? Did she ever have opportunities, prospects? How did she see the world? On my fleeting trip in and out of the bathroom all I could offer was a big smile, no time to sit and ask her about who she was and how she got there.

While we are all human and unique, we also by nature of our biology and default all too quickly forget. So, what should we do with these people all around us – in a world crowded with faces?

Try not to stereotype

I say try, because our brain works quickly to categorise and simplify as a survival mechanism still with us from our ancient ancestors. Friend or foe, like me or not like me, opportunity or threat. We have to consciously make the decision not to let the more basic and primitive areas of our brain take over. While it may be beneficial to use our survival instincts when we’re walking home alone in the dead of night that only makes up a small fraction of time in our daily lives.

Try not to make assumptions

Once we’ve got past the point of stereotyping, the next rabbit hole our brain takes us down is stereotyping. We speak to someone at a party and find out that they’re a banker, our assumption could be that they are money and status driven and that could be the lens we then see everything they say through. For example they talk about when they were in Africa and we assume it was on some luxury safari. In actual fact it was as a volunteer helping children orphaned as a result of AIDS, and why? Because they care deeply about giving back. Even as a psychologist trained to step back from these assumptions, I can be as guilty as the next person once I’m out of work mode.

Ask questions and really really listen.

Try (again I say try because it’s not the way your brain will lead you) to remain completely open-minded, to listen with intent, to understand not to judge or think about what you are going to say next, listen to hear what that person has experienced, what they believe in, what nuances of their experience and perception makes them as unique as you and I.

What’s your experience of jumping to the wrong conclusion or being surprised by someone’s story? What have you learnt about people as you’ve gone through life? Do you have any tips on how to stop yourself from judging too quickly? I’d love to know because I really do think we can all learn from one another.

 

Explore your own story using:

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.com, amazon.au, amazon.ca

Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

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My Vision, My Dream…

This is a short video I put together following the Game Changers event I went to at The House of Commons. It shares my vision.

 

The how comes in the form of working with other people which I aim to do via the dot-to-dot charity. Please let me know if you have any thoughts, ideas or want to collaborate in any way.

Fiona x

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Why Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat…

The late Stephen Hawking advised “It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious, I know I will forever be.” Throughout his life he not only exercised an insatiable curiosity about physics and some of the biggest questions facing mankind, but he also urged people to open their own eyes to every possibility.

Hawking’s encouraged curiosity, inspiring people to take leaps forward in their own understanding. He championed and role-modelled this behaviour, making extraordinary use of his brain to remain intrigued by every corner of the universe. Despite being trapped in an immobile body his brain was constantly exploring. It may even have been what kept him alive for the five decades beyond the doctors gave him. Although that may sound implausible, one study which looked at more than 2000 people over a 5-year period showed that older adults who were more curious actually lived longer (even after taking other risk factors into account).

“Look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” S. Hawking

Curiosity is a fascinating, even magical behavior that’s relevant to each and every one of us. It defines our natural inquisitiveness as humans, without curiosity we wouldn’t have moved beyond being cave dwellers. Exploiting our curiosity has enabled us to reach the advanced scientific and technological world of the twenty-first century. And with that understanding of the brain and behaviour we’ve found other benefits that curiosity itself brings. These include factors essential to happiness and success:

HAPPINESS & WELL-BEING

A paper by Matthew Gallagher in the Journal of Positive Psychology showed that the “exploration” component of curiosity is positively associated with well-being. Further to this, a German study found that curiosity has a more positive impact on well-being and happiness than gratitude, hope, or even humor.

CONNECTION

When we show genuine interest in others, a curiosity and openness about who they are, wanting to know them and not to judge them, it builds trust and allows a deeper connection to form, ultimately fuelling positive and fulfilling relationships.

INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY

Todd Kashdan, Professor of Psychology at George Mason University has carried out extensive research on curiosity and says: “When curiosity is supported in the workplace, employees feel energized, engaged and committed, and this helps drive innovation.”

INTELLECT

Sophie von Stumm from the University of Edinburgh worked with colleagues to look at curiosity within an academic setting. She found that intellectual curiosity influenced academic performance to the same extent as IQ. Research published in the neuroscientific journal Neuron showed how our brain learns better and retains more information when we are curious about a subject. And Einstein, another giant of intellect said “I am neither clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious”

We all started life curious about the world. Some people manage to hone and develop that curiosity, Stephen Hawking being case in point, but most of us become too busy ‘doing things’ to fully engage our curiosity, meaning that this valuable skill dwindles gradually as we age. But the good news is that it’s never too late to improve.

Kashdan has found that there are two key elements to curiosity:

  • Being motivated to discover new knowledge and experiences.
  • Having an inclination to embrace novel and unpredictable situations.

How do you use this? Well as a starting point it’s here are 10 things worth trying: 

  1. Following Your Fascination – a stepping stone to developing curiosity is looking about and investigating the things that peak your interest.
  2. Reading – anything and everything you can get your hands on.
  3. Learning from Others – listen to people with experience, people you know and even those you don’t know by watching YouTube, Tedtalks, documentaries and reading autobiographies. The more you listen and learn, the more you will want to learn.
  4. Learning New Things – it sounds obvious but do you do it? Look into what courses you could take whether it’s an hour at your local college or a PhD it doesn’t matter. Try out what works and what doesn’t for you and once you see what does, throw yourself into it to learn and explore in more depth.
  5. Asking Questions – and listening to the answers (before shutting down, thinking about something else or deciding you’re not interested). Other people’s views are always noteworthy, especially when they are different from you own. Try to be open minded, explore and be prepared to shift your perspective (that doesn’t mean you have to, just be open to it)
  6. Observing and Watching– see what’s going on around you, what’s new, what’s changed, look at things as a young child does, even the same landscape is constantly in flux, notice those changes. Be a detective, look under every stone, work out the connections, relentlessly explore.
  7. Trying New Things and going to new places – jump in feet first even if it feels a little scary, it’s only by experiencing difference that we can really stretch our minds.
  8. Pursuing Personal Development – learn more about you, raise your self-awareness, understand where and how you fit in the world, what are your strengths, what you find meaning in.
  9. Speaking to Strangers– not ‘strange’ people but people you don’t know. We learn a lot more from people who are not like us and that tends to be people we don’t know.
  10. Pushing Yourself Beyond Your Comfort Zone – go on, jump in and try something new. As renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow said “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or back into safety” Which will you choose?

Extracts taken and adapted from Defining You.

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to amazon.co.uk, Waterstonesamazon.com, amazon.au . It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from mid April 2018.

Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

 

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References:

M.W. Gallagher & S.J. Lopez (2009) Positive expectancies and mental health: Identifying the unique contributions of hope and optimism, Journal of Positive Psychology 4(6): 548–56.

Gander, R.T. Proyer, W. Ruch, & T. Wyss (2012) The good character at work: An initial study on the contribution of character strengths in identifying healthy and unhealthy work-related behavior and experience patterns, International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 85(8): 895–904.

J. Gruber, M. J. B. D. Gelman, & C. Ranganath C (2014) States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit, Neuron, Oct 02, 2014

T, Kashdan (2009) Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Harper Perennial

von Stumm, B. Hell, & T. Chamorro-Premuzic (2011) The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity Is the third pillar of academic performance, Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(6): 574–88.

E. Swan, & D. Carmelli (1996). Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging, 11(3), 449-453.

 

Image Source: http://maybusch.com/make-better-first-impression/detective-magnifying-glass/

 

You’ll never get a second chance to make a great first impression…

This morning I saw a remarkable lady. When I profiled her earlier in the year I found her story intriguing and in many ways quite extraordinary. She’s had personal circumstances that have taken astonishing resilience to survive and (despite a tough exterior), she has played a role in helping friends that goes above and beyond much I have ever seen. Over the course of her working life she has also achieved some tremendous things. Yet her fate in her current organisation is not certain. While I’m often able to influence decision making, this time I cannot. Her ultimate circumstance will be decided by external advisors who have seen her in a snapshot of time – an older lady, who doesn’t sell herself well. It seems so unfair that they do not know the story that makes up who she is or what she is capable of.

Unfortunately, how we present ourselves in a ‘snapshot of time’ matters. Science illustrates that a ‘first impression’, the mental image we form of a person, is made within a tenth of a second[1]. This shows both the fallibility of our decision making and how our ancient brain is often in the driving seat when it comes to judgements. The more primitive part of our brain makes quick fire decisions as a survival mechanism because in the world that our brain evolved to work in, we had to decide if someone new was a threat, a useful addition to our tribe, a possible mate or a potential leader. These mechanisms dominate our thinking today, yet we remain largely unaware incorrectly assuming that we are rational and fair in our conclusions.

Judgements can and do differ depending on context but broadly speaking research shows that we greatly favour people who are young and attractive[2].  After how a person looks and their body language the next mechanism for judging a strangers’ character is how they communicate.

When it comes to job interviews, good communication can create strong biases toward a candidate regardless of their actual capabilities. One paper found that “Chronic self-promoters may thrive in job interviews”[3] because they are able to position their capabilities and achievements with impact. Even skilled interviewers, people who have met and assessed person after person can be unwittingly misled by someone who has ‘the gift of the gab’.

A prime example of this are those narcissistic leaders whose appointments we may rue. Typically, they have managed their way through interviews and promotions simply by knowing how to play to very primitive drivers found in us all. That doesn’t make them good at their jobs but they have weaved their way to the top through adept communication. By which time they wield enough power to get rid of any ‘bumps in the road’ (a certain President may come to mind). I am as guilty as the next person of making quick, subconscious judgements, but through training and conscious effort I, like my fellow psychologists, are able to spot these bluffers. After a life charmed by their communication skills, we (psychologists) are typically the first to catch these people out (and by the way it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of an angry narcissist who blames you for blocking their way). But as is the case for the lady at hand, our advice is not always taken.

It’s not easy to step away from our subconscious biases, I certainly don’t manage it in my everyday life. It is however worth stopping to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re not guilty of too quickly ‘judging a book by its cover’ – whether positively or negatively.

What about how we present ourselves to others?

For me, as a young, blonde graduate entering the workplace, I resented judgements made, it certainly undermined my capabilities in many situations. I worked hard to prove my worth, both to myself and those around me, collecting qualifications as a signpost to my capability.

By my early 30s I’d tired of trying to prove myself, and strongly believing in authenticity, I switched to not caring what people thought. I did not fit a mould and I would not try, rather I would use my experience and track record to get my point across. This approach worked when I’d been introduced by word of mouth, but letting down the barrier of impression management meant another set of unhelpful judgements came my way.

Now I am ‘older’ I realise the importance of presenting well, albeit in a more nuanced way. That doesn’t mean I get it right, nor that I can overcome other people’s rapid-fire judgements. I do however have a much better understanding of the need to meet half way – not changing who I am but ensuring that I present my best self.

Whoever we are and whatever we do we owe it to ourselves to learn how to manage the impression that others make of us. Sometimes we have to accept that we will be judged incorrectly, that’s the way that the human brain works, but as far as possible authentically understanding and presenting our own narrative, taking control of what we can, gives us a fairer chance in the world.

 

What can you do when it comes to your own presentation?

Pause: and think through what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. One leader I coach takes 5 minutes to set himself up mentally before going into any key meeting.

Ask for feedback: you don’t know how you come across unless you ask. By getting feedback you can make better use of your good points and play down the bits that you feel are less representative of who you are.

Understand yourself better: raise your self-awareness, learn more about your strengths, passions, experiences, interests and what that means to who you are.

Read: Introduction to Personal Branding by Mel Carson for some really helpful tips in a short easy to read format.

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References:

[1] Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological science17(7), 592-598.

[2] Genevieve L. Lorenzo, G. L., .Biesanz J. C.,  Human, L.J. (2010). What Is Beautiful Is Good and More Accurately Understood: Physical Attractiveness and Accuracy in First Impressions of Personality Psychological Science Vol 21, Issue 12, pp. 1777 – 1782

[3] Paulhus, D. L., Westlake, B. G., Calvez, S. S. and Harms, P. D. (2013), Self-presentation style in job interviews: the role of personality and culture. J Appl Soc Psychol, 43: 2042–2059. doi:10.1111/jasp.12157

Image: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/05/05/308349318/you-had-me-at-hello-the-science-behind-first-impressions