When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:
“Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato
“Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles
And the one perhaps most relevant to today:
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates
It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands
What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.
Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.
What could you do to help this and to help yourself?
Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness. Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.
Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.
Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.
New year’s resolutions should be no different to the goals we make at any time of year in order to move closer to who we want to be, how we want to operate and what we want to achieve. The problem is, as soon as its new year we all go a bit mad and create a long list of things that we feel will appease us from the sins of Christmas and New Year. Inevitably we then fail and feel rubbish about ourselves as a result. The reason is, making goals at any time needs to fulfil certain behavioural considerations. I hate the term but they really do need to be ‘SMART’ otherwise they just won’t work. So, for those who are making resolutions, I thought this extract from my book may help. Good luck and happy 2019!!
Key points to consider before you start:
Don’t try to change too many behaviors at once. It just won’t work, and the sense of failure you will inevitably feel as a result could prevent you from living out your purpose effectively.
The changes you are aiming to make should take you out of your comfort zone and stretch you, but shouldn’t push you to extreme discomfort. It’s better to take smaller, successful steps than a giant leap.
Pick the things that you feel intrinsically motivated to work on (as opposed to doing it because you feel you ought to or someone else has told you to).
The headings below are the areas you should consider with each resolution you set. The italics provide an example of what sort of thing you may want to write.
Goal: Becoming more empathic.
The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to fill out the remainder of the plan so this may be expanded to:
I’m going to work on my empathy to become better at relating to other people when I’m feeling stressed and under pressure.
What will success look like and what will the positive outcomes be? Becoming a more effective influencer and forming more positive relationships.
What obstacles may I come up against and what can I do about them? Internal obstacles e.g., feeling demotivated, having self-doubt, fear, anger, anxiety. Frustration and impatience. Action to overcome: create a trigger that reminds me to take a step back
External obstacles e.g. lack of money, lack of time, lack of skills, health constraints. Need to gain skills in the area of communicating more effectively.
Which strengths can I make use of to help me?
Interest in other people
Ability to listen
Desire to grow as a person
Action and by when? How can I break down my goal into smaller steps, how can I action those steps, and when by? Take the overall area for goal and make it into something that you can carry out a step at a time. It’s very important to make your actions ‘time-bound,’ setting a day, date, and even a time for each of them where you can.
Make sure that I am consciously listening to people at least once a day. Start doing this in my first meeting of the day from tomorrow and continue for two months, until March 3rd.
Show empathic curiosity, really try to understand what the other person is saying and putting myself in their shoes. Continue doing step 1 and from March 3rdbuild in step 2 once a day for two months, until May 3rd.
Go on a communication and influencing course by July 2019.
Bring the understanding I get from the course into my everyday communications—continue with steps 1 and 2 and build the information into the company presentations I’m doing on August 31, thinking through how best to get the message across so that people can connect with it.
What will my review mechanism be?
You need to know how you’re doing against your specific goals, otherwise you don’t know how close or far away you are from achieving them. Measuring behavior change can be tricky, but there are some simple methods you can use, like rating yourself, asking for feedback, and logging progress.
Check I’ve completed the actions above by the specified date.
Ask for feedback from people who work with me.
Make a log in my diary of the interactions I have every day.
Rate myself out of 10 in terms of how I think I’m progressing.
TIPS TO HELP
Create reminders: reminder for your specific actions somewhere that you will see frequently, e.g., on your daily to-do list, in your diary, an alarm on your phone. This is a small but critical step – the difference between making something happen and just thinking about it.
Create a cue: tie the actions into something you do every day, e.g., if your goal is to start flossing your teeth, use brushing your teeth as a reminder.
Reward yourself: every time you achieve success, however small. The reward should be something that will really provide you with personal satisfaction.
Enlist social support: ask a friend, relation, colleague, or even a member of the community to encourage and support you.
Persist: repetition is key to making a behavior stick. Research has shown that it can take from 15 to 254 days to truly form a new habit.
“Curiosity is the essence of human existence. “Who are we? Where are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” I don’t know. I don’t have any answers to those questions. I don’t know what’s over there and around that corner. But I want to find out.”
—Eugene Cernan – American astronaut
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.
We most commonly associate curiosity with children and their raw, hungry desire to understand the world around them and their place in it. While research suggests that as we age our inquisitiveness tends to fade, curiosity is just as relevant in adulthood, not only helping you discover more about who you are, but providing a basis on which to build better relationships, unlock creativity and innovation, grow your intellect, and boost your general health and well-being.
In his book Curious, Ian Leslie describes the process of curiosity in childhood. This is a useful framework from which to see the how to approach your own self-awareness and exploration. In a sense, it’s very like that of a detective. Whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, or Maigret, there are connections and parallels between their work and effectively exploring your own story: their resolute approach and insistent need never to take anything at face value. These masters of curiosity see things from every angle until they find the clues that unlock the mystery.
Leslie describes the three steps of curiosity as follows.
1 KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
You approach a situation accepting your own inexperience. You’re not presuming you know the answer, but rather asking questions with an open mind and really considering the answers. This is known as empathic curiosity: an interest in the thoughts and feelings of other people, and remaining ready to encounter the unexpected.
When I’m profiling clients as a psychologist I meet everyone from a position of naivety: no expectations and no presumptions. This way I can really connect with them, putting my own presuppositions aside in order to understand their personal experiences and how those have affected who they are.
It’s good you to use this approach when working on your self-awareness. Rather than answering questions with your habitual response, think about what you really think, feel, and want. Don’t assume you know the answers until you’ve looked at things from every angle, dig beneath the surface, and ask yourself why you feel the way you do about certain things, how the beliefs you have formed came about, what led you to take certain decisions. Doing this will provide far richer insights to work with in working out who you are and what you want from life.
2 IMAGINING DIFFERENT, COMPETING POSSIBILITIES
You hold more than one possibility in mind at any given time and explore which one is right. For example, when meeting someone shy, consider “Is this person shy when they meet new people?” or “Are they quiet in this situation because they’re nervous?” This element of curiosity is essential when it comes to the line of questioning we psychologists take in profiles, drawing inferences about a client’s mental state, judgments, and actions while recognizing that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Any thought or idea needs to be explored and tested.
When you’re reflecting on your own journey, try to remember that the first decision you come to about yourself may not be the right one. It’s essential always to consider more than one inference and thoroughly explore it before jumping to a conclusion. Try to suspend judgment until you have explored all the options. It may help you find out something about yourself you’d never considered before.
3 UNDERSTAND THAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLE
Keep an open mind to others’ thoughts, attitudes, and experiences. In social situations, we have a natural tendency to show other people what we know about a familiar subject, rather than listening to what they can tell us. Yet pausing to learn about them and asking questions inevitably provide information that we can reapply to ourselves. For example, you may find a different way of seeing things, a means of overcoming an issue that you hadn’t thought of, an opportunity that you didn’t know about.
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.
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.”
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:
Following Your Fascination – a stepping stone to developing curiosity is looking about and investigating the things that peak your interest.
Reading – anything and everything you can get your hands on.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pushing Yourself Beyond Your ComfortZone – 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, Waterstones, amazon.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.
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.
Emotional Resilience is closely linked to success. In fact, some argue that success is reliant on it, for example US psychologist Angela Duckworth believes that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the possession of what she calls “grit”, aka resilience. But success is not the only benefit that resilience brings, research links it with mental health, physical health, ability to learn, to innovate, to deal with failure and to thrive in spite of tragedy or daily life stressors.
It’s not news that those who make it, those who win medals, entrepreneurs whose businesses succeed against the odds, all have resilience. When it comes to achieving despite the odds, the same famous role-models are quoted e.g.
J.K. Rowling who went from being a single parent battling depression, rejected by 12 publishers to the world’s best-selling children’s author.
Oprah Winfrey born into poverty and suffering many hardships as a child who has become one of the most influential women in the world.
Walt Disney among other trials was fired from a newspaper for “not being creative enough” and told Mickey Mouse would fail because the character would terrify women. He went on to be nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winning 32.
When we’re at our lowest point these inspirational examples are given in good faith and we’re told to ‘never give up, keep trying’. But if it was that easy wouldn’t we all just carry on regardless to fulfil our dreams? Wouldn’t we all be OK irrespective of what life throws at us?
So, what’s their magic?
Over the centuriesmany people have tried to figure out what distinguishes those who keep trying from those who give up. Churchill said “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And courage is one facet of personality that has been linked to resilience. However this belief reflects a more outdated understanding of resilience, as something you’re simply born with or not, something straight forward and one dimensional. More recent research has revealed that resilience is a complex and dynamic process of interacting systems involving our genes, personality, social support system and cultural background.
With an updated view, academics have proposed definitions of resilience such as ‘a process to harness resources to sustain well-being’. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Thousands of years ago we lived in egalitarian tribes where we were dependent on one another to survive, the belief systems and group support systems were a necessary facet of staying alive. It wasn’t just the person with courage or individual with grit, but also the one who knew how to bring others together, to harness the power of the group and to get along with their fellow tribesmen and women who stayed alive. Today with the help of others and making use of the right resources we can not only survive but if we get it right, we can thrive.
You can have the magic too…
Taking the traditional meaning of emotional resilience some of us are left wanting – if we were not born with the personality to keep on getting up every time we fell whether through courage, determination or optimism it’s not something we can easily change. However, the most recent academic insights provide hope – while yes, some people are indeed born more resilient than others, research shows that we can all develop our emotional resilienceregardless of where we start. How? By working on:
Social connections – nurturing relationships with family, friends and people more broadly is a critical contributor to resilience. Knowing or learning how to ask for and how to accept help is a sign of strength not weakness. Unfortunately, society often teaches us otherwise so this can feel counter intuitive. It is however the way we evolved to survive – going against it is literally going against nature and the way our brain works.
Reframing – our brains naturally kick up negative emotions – we can’t get rid of them but we can reframe them more positively as something we are in control of. This prevents negative thoughts creating a catastrophic story that leaves us feeling helpless. For example, if we failed an exam we could think:
Negative approach –
Thought: “I failed my exams because I am not very bright.”
Outcome: out of your control and with negative meaning.
Positive reframing –
Thought: “I failed my exams because I didn’t work hard enough.”
Outcome: within your control “It was a good life lesson, because of it I have worked harder at things that matter to me ever since”—and with positive meaning
Research suggests that “framing” our life so that things have meaning and outcomes we are in control of is so powerful that it positively changes brain functioning.
(extract from Defining You)
Psychological flexibility – Dr. Russ Harris defines this as “the ability to adapt to a situation with awareness, openness, and focus and to take effective action guided by your values”. It’s about being able to accept and regulate our emotions rather than letting them control us. Learning to be more accepting of situations and thoughts is an extremely powerful tool. Read “The Happiness Trap” for a very accessible and robustly researched account of how to do this. Also practicing mindfulness (suggested apps below) will help develop the skills needed to better regulate your emotions.
Learning and reflection through journaling – writing things down can help to develop insights and find the patterns or traps that we may be being pulled into – creating a greater level of perspective. It also helps to create constructive meaning to events especially if our focus is on what we have learnt, what may have been gained from experiences and how we may like things to pan out in the future.
Self-awareness – working on our personal development helps us to understand the situations which drain us and those which energise us so that we are better able to regulate our emotional and physical well-being.
Ratio of 3:1 – research shows that people who have a ratio of 3 times as many experiences of positive emotions to 1 of negative emotions on a daily basis (3-to-1 ratio) are more likely to be resilient. You may not naturally have this but working on the factors relating to resilience (e.g. connections, reframing) will help you to create and sustain this ratio. Erstwhile if all else fails (and even if it doesn’t)…..
Keep on keeping on– at our most difficult times and lowest points, putting one foot in front of the other even when we don’t believe, is what we need to do to ultimately reach our intended goal. Our emotions ebb and flow, but if we can keep on ‘doing’ in spite of losing hope, we’ll still be on the right track once our hope has returned. Years ago a professional athlete said to me “The difference between those who win medals and those who don’t make it is comes down to who is prepared to go out and practice whatever the weather, however they feel, they just do it day after day”. This reflects what Duckworth believes – that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the ability to keep on keeping on. If every day you do something to keep moving toward your goal, little by little you will gradually move away from where you are and toward where you want to be.
As with any of these things read more, explore and try things out to find what works best for 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, amazon.com or Waterstones. It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from April 2018.
The book gives you unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.
Mindfulness Apps & Reading
Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and perseverance. Harper Collins
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.
Brown K.W. & Ryan R.M. (2003) The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4): 822–48. C.R.
Cloninger (2006) The science of well-being: An integrated approach to mental health and its disorders, World Psychiatry 5(2): 71–6.
Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and PERSEVERANCE. Harper Collins
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.
Giordano B. (1997) Resilience: a survival tool for the nineties. Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses Journal 65, 1032– 1036.
Meichenbaum, D. (2007). Important facts about resilience: A consideration of research findings about resilience and implications for assessment and treatment. Melissa Institute: Miami, FL, USA.
Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential. Hodder & Stoughton.
Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives. European journal of psychotraumatology, 5(1), 25338.