Nothing will work unless you do…

…and yet we’re still not teaching kids how they work.

Having profiled hundreds of leaders as well as people from across a range of backgrounds, I have seen the clear patterns and links between life success, well-being and fulfilling potential with the psychological skills learnt in the teenage years. However, it’s not just what I have seen myself, this is backed by a huge amount of data and research. Literally hundreds of studies of what is often referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL) have documented the short-term benefits and more recent studies have shown the benefits lasting across time with both economic and societal return on investment for SEL in schools (e.g. Belfield et al., 2015).

One study analysed data from 82 schools involving nearly 100,000 students looking at the impacts of SEL across a time span of 6 months to 18 years and clearly demonstrated the benefits to students from all types of backgrounds, both underprivileged and wealthy. Social emotional learning was shown to prepare students to move successfully through school and college, and to be productive workers and good citizens with positive mental health. The only catch being that without ‘quality implementation’, not using people who really know what they’re talking about or using evidence based schemes, the potential positive impact of any learning is significantly reduced (Taylor et al., 2017).

From the other end of the spectrum, the impact of a lack of SEL in schools has a huge economic cost. A recent Cabinet Office report revealed that the government in England and Wales is spending nearly £17 billion on the short-term costs of ‘picking up the pieces from damaging social issues affecting young people, such as child abuse and neglect, unemployment and youth crime’ which extends further still when looking at the longer-term impact or the wider social or economic costs’. The report suggests that the solution is to ensure that ‘everyone is able to realise their full potential by developing the range of skills we all need to thrive’ namely the following social and emotional capabilities:

  • Self-perceptions, self-awareness and self-direction (including self-esteem and the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference);
  • Motivation;
  • Self-control/self-regulation (generally characterised as greater impulse control and fewer behavioural problems);
  • Social skills, including relationship skills and communication skills;
  • Resilience and coping.

The report found that teaching these skills led to ‘top’ job advantage, qualifications, adult mental health, life satisfaction, socio-economic benefits, labour market health and other health related outcomes. It concluded that their findings provide a robust case for increased local and national commitment to supporting the social and emotional development of children and young people.  Further support was offered by the current education secretary in February 2019 setting out the vision for building character and resilience being ‘as important as academic achievement’. The question remains however, what is actually being done?

Added to all of this I would argue that it’s critical for children to understand how the brain works. Without this knowledge the picture is far from complete. Children need to learn how to work with their brain, optimise their performance and understand the fundamental mismatch between the brain and the world we live in. This provides the backdrop to why we do many of the things which feel odd or work against common sense. For example how even a strong willed independent person can end up conforming to a group, why our emotions don’t always make sense, why analysing things in the outside world helps to create resolution but analysing things in our own head can cause massive issues.

I don’t believe it should be just leaders who learn these skills i.e. those who already have a pretty good grasp of their social and emotional capabilities.  So, I am starting a school tour where giving free talks to sixth formers. The aim is to help them understand some of the basics and provide them with access to tools and materials to support this in a more ongoing context. If you know a school that may be interested, please do let us know.

Contact: lorna.walls@aroka.co.uk

References:

Cabinet Office report, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015 ‘SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING: SKILLS FOR LIFE AND WORK’ edited by Leon Feinstein, Director of Evidence, Early Intervention Foundation

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child development, 88(4), 1156-1171.

“Nothing will work unless you do” Maya Angelou

Photograph: Pexels.com

The Sisters

I was recently asked to write for ‘The Sisters’ magazine by the wonderful and truly amazing around the world rower Roz Savage. Here’s what I said…..

Over the course of my career I’ve worked as a psychologist with leaders from all walks of life. I love my work, and I’ve always had a deep-seated desire to share what I’ve learnt with a wider audience which has become a large part of my life’s mission. My starting point was writing Defining You, a book which shares the tools and insights I’ve gained from my work and garnered from psychologists across the world with people across the world. In this article, I wanted to share with you a snapshot of what makes female leaders successful and how that could help you.

As a psychologist, I’m often asked if I see differences between the sexes. What I’ve observed is that women, more or less without exception, have higher levels of self-doubt than men. Yet female leaders also tend to be the feistiest of their peer group. Hearing the life stories of hundreds of women, I’ve learnt of exceptional grit: the girl who at school stood up against the bully in spite of the repercussions on her own life or the girl who refused to let dire circumstances prevent her from fulfilling her intellectual capability. Many of these gutsy and spirited girls go on to make it to the top of their field as women. Women who, nevertheless, still have a lower self-esteem than men. So, where does that leave the rest of us? How do we fulfil our potential?  Do we have to develop a cast-iron sense of will and capability to stand up against the odds?

Not at all. While those women who do ‘succeed’ in leadership may not fit the norm, they don’t necessarily tower above other women in terms of confidence. What they do have is an accurate level of self-awareness. I say accurate because this is something we women tend to get wrong, focussing more on our weaknesses than our strengths. While it may seem counterintuitive to know your strengths and not be self-confident, they are separate entities. So, it’s worth understanding yourself better as it can help you get to wherever it is you want to go.

Reflecting on our strengths can feel uncomfortable and is an area that women often struggle with. When we’re good at something, there is a tendency for it to just feel like it’s ‘something we do’ – that there’s nothing special about it. Because it comes easily to us, we don’t realise that it’s not something that everyone can do. We also often move away from these things, focussing on what we’re not doing well or even what we don’t like or enjoy, rather than celebrating what we’re good at. As a result, we don’t make the most of our strengths and can end up going down the wrong path.

As a personal example, I loved psychology and studied it at university. I also had an interest in business, so I did a business Masters. Then I made the mistake of doing what I thought was the ‘best next step’ – joining a business consultancy, which didn’t make use of my natural strengths or interests. As I gradually became more miserable, I realised I had to leave. I went back to university to become a Chartered Psychologist. Now I love what I do and although I have self-doubts, if I hadn’t pursued this career, I wouldn’t have been able to help all the people I have, I wouldn’t have written a book that I hope will help even more people, and I wouldn’t have been able to focus on giving back. Instead I would have been a ‘reasonable’ management consultant, not an exceptional one, not fully making use my natural strengths, and not very happy. I don’t hold myself up as a gleaming example, but this gives you a flavour of what I mean.

Of course, it’s important to know what we’re not so good at, where we can grow and develop, and what to watch out for in terms of tendencies that can trip us up. But that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves headlong into something that goes totally against the grain. When it comes to ‘weaknesses’ it’s important to initially identify the things we need to be aware of and that may never change. For example, I have a tendency to burst with ideas when I’m talking to people. Consequently, I often butt in or speak over others in my excitement. This for me is a crucial behaviour that I need to be aware of. I’ve tried to change it, but I can’t, so I accept it as part of who I am and am very conscious of managing it. Next, it’s about looking at which expertise to develop in order to do what we love. For example, to do psychology I had to go back to university. Then, and this can be the hardest part, it’s knowing what to leave behind. For me that was trying to be a good management consultant which was just never going to fit with who I truly am.

Some of these questions may help you think through your own passions and strengths, and help you identify areas for development:

  • Do you still love doing the same things that you got lost in for hours in as a child? Maybe you haven’t engaged with those things for years or you could use them in different ways now.

  • Which jobs and responsibilities have you most loved and most hated?

  • What is working well for you in your current life and career? What do you find fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, and important? What drains you, makes you stressed and anxious, or wastes your time?

  • What are the tendencies you have that you don’t think will ever change? How can you be more aware of them and stop them from getting in your way?

  • What do you need to develop in order to do what you want? How will you do that?

Talking to a friend to explore who you are may help. Be open-minded, curious, and enjoy. Choose your path, leverage your strengths, and reach for the stars!

 

Links:

https://www.thesisters.global/single-post/2019/01/25/Leveraging-Your-Strengths

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

 

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It’s never too late to be who you might have been – George Eliot

There are moments where I wonder if it’s too late – this voyage into authorship, facing the world rather than directly into organisations as I have so far. Then I remind myself that it really isn’t – that’s what I tell other people, so I should believe it too. George Eliot pen name for Mary Ann Evans role-modelled her belief – a woman in a man’s world of the 19thCentury didn’t stop her. She was 40 when she published her first novel, at 60 she married a man 20 years her junior. She was, for her time quite radical. We’re not all that way inclined but all it takes is an open minded and curiosity about life to see what ‘might’ still lie ahead, to let go of expectations of what should have been and to focus on what can be.  BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin did exactly that. In 2012, at 42 she took part in a cycling competition around the velodrome in Manchester for the BBC. Soon her curiosity and interest in this new activity had her training for triathlon’s. By 2015 she competed for Britain in her age group at the ITU World Championships.

Other notable ‘age eluders’ include:

  • Jo Pavey who won her first Olympic gold aged 40.
  • Samuel L. Jackson who had his first big film role aged 43.
  • Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species aged 50.
  • Julia Child made her television debut in The French Chef aged 51.
  • Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, his first novel, aged 60.
  • Ranulph Fiennes climbed Everest aged 65.
  • Sir William Crookes invented the first instruments to study radioactivity aged 68.
  • Lord Palmerston became prime minister of Great Britain aged 71.
  • Mary Wesley had her first novel for adults published aged 71.
  • John Glenn traveled into space aged 77.
  • Gladys Burrill from Hawaii ran her first marathon aged 86.

It can be difficult to think about beginning a new phase or achieving later in life but while undeniably some barriers are physical a lot are psychological. So how do you overcome them?

  • Try not to think in black and white – it’s not all or nothing. For example, I love snowboarding – when my children were babies I couldn’t go off with my buddies and trek up mountains. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t stick to the piste. How I enjoyed my hobby simply changed and evolved. Try not to pin yourself down to a certain way of thinking or an identity because it’s how you’ve always seen yourself. Things change in ways that are not absolute.

 

  • Remain open to experiences – as we get older it’s harder to let go of what we know. It creeps up on us but as we repeat the same things over and over they become habit and doing something different can feel scary. Keep challenging yourself to see things from alternate angles and push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Kashdan, a psychologist who researches curiosity, explains how we are “socialized” to believe that certainty is better for us than ambiguity. Yet research consistently shows that the negative anxiety we feel when approaching new situations is greatly outweighed by the more intense, longer-lasting, meaningful experiences we thus create.

 

  • Allow yourself to fail – we’re not born fearing failure but as we pass through life we become more and more scared. Try to remain open to failure, to learn from it, to live through it and see it as a gift in terms of the knowledge and the experience it gives you. You’ll be far more creative and see a vastly improved range of options about your future if you can allow yourself to fail. If you’re stuck on this one try reading Carol Dweck’s book.

 

  • Embrace opportunities – to go to new places and speak to new people. Rather than always going to the same pub, restaurant, café, holiday location, or taking the same route to work, try going somewhere new or going a different way. Speak to different people, try different things. Without doing this you don’t even know what’s out there. If Louise Minchin hadn’t done the cycling in 2012 she never would have known about her passion or capability.

 

Set your mind free, explore, try new things and see what comes up. What you might have been may not even be something you know about yet.

 

 

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

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

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

I’m talking about potential at Red Smart Women’s Week in London on 22nd September

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

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Other Info:

Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious? Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. New York, NY, US: William Morrow & Co.

Dweck, Carol S.. (2008) Mindset: the new psychology of success New York : Ballantine Books,

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/get-inspired/34141676

Image:

https://peanutbutteronrye.files.wordpress.com

 

Untapped Potential

This week I had the privilege of working with the EY Foundation and a group of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. When I found out that the group consisted of 60 students – well saying I panicked would be an understatement – I struggle to look after my own kids let alone that many teenagers! Generally I shy away from asking for help – but at this point I was well and truly into the zone of begging, although I needn’t have, when it comes to giving back people really do dig deep.

First, I approached someone I coach – Yona Christodoulou – an amazing, inspiring and engaging woman who herself had a tough upbringing. Yona shared her story and the youngsters hung off her every word, nearly all the comments she made that morning got a round of applause. I also spoke to a friend Kevin MacAuley (a partner at Ernst and Young) in the hope that he may be able to loan me extra hands in the form of younger members of his team – you know people who may actually be able to connect with these guys better than a woman in her – well who is quite a bit older than them. Kevin gave me four members of his team who were all fabulous!

The EY Foundation has fantastic intentions and does incredible things for the youngsters on their programme – helped by the numerous people across EY who get involved as mentors and organisers. Their vision is for ‘every young person in the UK to achieve their career ambitions’ and their mission ‘to reduce the barriers to work….and inspire and engage them to achieve their potential’. On their website there are stories from the young people who’ve completed the programme. One guy, Mohammed talks about how the information his mentor gave him, the insights into how to apply for jobs and what to look for, gave him ‘a cheat sheet’. He even said it feels like he had ‘an unfair advantage’ knowing what he did. Maybe compared to his peers he did – but for most of us we take for granted that we have anything we need at our fingertips. It’s the rest of us that have that unfair advantage.

The guys and girls this week were amazing – funny, feisty, spirited, motivated, engaged and charming – each of them characters that I wanted to get to know better. For example, I walked into the toilets where three girls were discussing their hair and got all embarrassed when they saw me, but rather than shutting down or walking out, within seconds they had included me in their banter and had me laughing at their sass.

These young people are not only great fun, but they are full of potential – I urged them all not to lose this as life pushed and pulled them. They haven’t had the comfortable life that I have, the opportunities that are espoused as being there if you look for them aren’t for everyone.  When they are given an opportunity they do it incredible justice and eat up every ounce of what is put their way.

I’ve written this not to say look at me, look at what I’ve done, rather look at EY and the EY Foundation – look at what they’ve done and are doing. Some of these teenagers live on the doorstep of Canary Wharf. The disparity of their lives and life inside the shiny offices seems unjust. We’re in the UK, a country that people are flocking to in order to find better lives, but it’s not always what we’re offering. There’s so much that could be learnt and leveraged by other corporate entities to help bring a little equality into the world that sits right on our door step.

To find out more about the EY Foundation please click here.

Many thanks to Brenda Trenowden, Yona Christodoulou, Kevin MacAuley, Fiona Campbell, Rupen Patel, Olivia D’silva, Alisha Somani, Luke Rainbird, Niraj Thakrar, Jessica Nicholson, Kathryn Darling and Victoria Ahonsi.

Not everyone is in the photo – we grabbed people on their way off to lunch. Yona is the striking lady at the front in the white jacket.

 

 

The Myth of Sanity

Sanity is a myth, none of us are sane, yet insanity feels scary, foreign and a million miles from the life that most of us lead. Insanity conjures up images of mental asylums, white coats, sedated patients, a ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ hive of panic-stricken individuals. Our 19th and 20th century foray into locking up the clinically ill has only served to heighten a perception of mental illness as being a million miles away from normal. A black and white divide between those who are sane and those who are not. As a result, we’ve come to fear any sign that we may be less than 100% normal, deeply burying signs of ‘weakness’ and fearing the stigma of what it means to be mentally ill.

Why sanity is a myth!

In reality there is no divide between being OK and being insane, we all suffer from symptoms of one kind or another. It’s only when the volume gets turned up to a deafening or debilitating pitch that it gets labelled, but it’s always there. If any one of us were to pick up the DSMV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which lists out psychiatric conditions, we could pick out symptoms that we recognise in ourselves.  Just take a look at the list below which relates to GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder):

  1. Too much anxiety or worry over more than six months. This is present most of the time in regards to many activities.
  2. Inability to manage these symptoms
  3. At least three of the following occur:
    Note: Only one item is required in children.

    1. Restlessness
    2. Tires easily
    3. Problems concentrating
    4. Irritability
    5. Muscle tension.
    6. Problems with sleep
  4. Symptoms result in problems with functioning.
  5. Symptoms are not due to medications, drugs, other physical health problems
  6. Symptoms do not fit better with another psychiatric problem such as panic disorder

It’s the frequency and intensity (in italics) which tip these symptoms from everyday annoyances toward mental illness i.e. impaired cognition (thinking), emotions or behaviour. It’s easy to see how the tipping point is similar to physical illness. We don’t go to the doctor until the pain in our side has been there for 3 months, or the headaches have become so severe that we can’t go to work.

So what is mental health?

Earlier this year I spoke to Lord Stevenson about raising awareness of what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to mental health. Stevenson and Farmer put together an independent review of mental health in the workplace for the Prime Minister and they open their review by saying:

By mental health we do not mean “mental ill health”. We mean the mental health we all have, just as we all have physical health. The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

With that in mind I put together the diagram below to show the parallels between physical health and mental health and the comparative places in which we seek help. As always I emphasize the fact that a better understanding of psychology could help everyone at every stage of this continuum.

Picture1

Realising Our Own Potential

Bringing this into the world I work the focus lies on the peak performance end of the continuum. A large part of my job is to help exceptional people remain in or reach their place of peak performance – to keep them at their absolute optimum. They need to be there so that they can realise their own potential, cope with the stresses of life but in most cases make a significant ‘contribution to his or her community’. These people have a responsibility not just to themselves but to those who they lead or influence, it’s critical that they understand their tipping points and avoid falling off the edge.

In my book I refer to stress and peak performance within the context of the Human Function Curve developed by Cardiologist Peter Nixon. This model is useful because while developed in the context of physiological stress and performance it also readily applies to mental stress and performance bringing together the similarities between physical and mental health.

The model helpfully points out that stress on either the body or the mind isn’t always detrimental—we need a certain amount in order to perform at our optimum which is just as well because and in reality we cannot escape stress. Both stress on our body and our mind are part of the equilibrium that is life. The curve illustrates that there is a need for a balance of good and bad stress, with optimal stress and performance at the midpoint.

Picture2

Taken from Defining You

If you think of this in the context of an athlete training – they need to keep stretching their body out of their comfort zone in order to improve, but then allow time to rest in order to train again. That stress will cause physical discomfort when the athlete is training but also allow them to improve their performance. However too much time training without a rest will result in injury.

When it comes to our minds, at a low level of stress, we may feel bored or disinterested, finding it hard to get ourselves going.  As stress increases, so does our physiological and psychological arousal until it reaches an optimal level, enabling improved performance: for example, performing better in a presentation or exam, finding it easier to concentrate and get things done, or being more able to think on our feet. In the same way that the stress causes a degree of physical discomfort for the athlete training, the mental annoyances that personally bother us are turned up in volume as we move along the spectrum. I for example get really anxious in the run up to giving a big talk and as a result experience more of the items in list C above e.g. restlessness, irritability, muscle tension and problems with sleeping. They aren’t however sustained, once I’ve done the talk they subside. Too much stress, too many talks in one week or one month could however be crippling. In the same way as too much stress on an athletes body can cause a muscle or tendon to tear, too much stress on our mind can cause us to tip over the edge with a need to take time to recover. At this point our performance follows a downward trajectory, leading to negative emotions and overall cognitive decline, risking mental ill health.

The Cyclical Nature of Mental Health

Over the years working with high performers, I have become acutely aware of the fine line between brilliance and denial, or talent and collapse. Individuals who are at the top of their game are vulnerable and can quickly face mental deterioration. This is not helped by the picture that has been painted of insanity. The most successful high achievers see nothing of themselves in people who fit this description, in fact they often fear this more than most – mental illness has also been branded as failure and failure is a long way from what they identify themselves with. Yet we only have to look at the list of those who have fallen prey to mental illness to see how close these two ends of the spectrum lie. From the brilliantly funny and talented Robin Williams who took his own life to Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemmingway, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf are just a few. In reality, peak performance is often knocking on the door of mental illness.

In this sense I see mental health as existing in a cyclical nature rather than on a continuum. We need to inhabit the right hand side of the cycle, moving back and forward from comfort zone, stretch zone and peak performance as we listen to our body and our mind, responding to the need to rest and refuel. Without this continual fine tune and awareness peak performance or even being stretched leads to the normal stresses of life becoming too much and tipping us over into mental illness. At this point it’s not so easy to pick up where we left off – we have to recover before we can perform at our peak again or even exist in our comfort zone. In the worst case, for those like Cobain and Williams, that recovery never happens.

The Cycle of Mental Health

Picture3

We all face immense pressures which we cannot just get rid of, but we can be more aware of both in ourselves and others. We don’t generally swing from OK to mentally ill. There aren’t just two ends of a spectrum – we all pass back and forward through the cycle. If we compare it to physical health, we are not in hospital or running a marathon, there are a whole host of physical states in between. With the brain, which is the most complex organ of the body, those states cover even more shades of grey.

I’m passionate about being a voice and joining other voices to move our societal understanding of mental health toward the richness and complexity that inhabits life. To help society understand that there is no sane or insane, rather a constantly changing state of mental states, influenced by a complex set of external and internal factors. At a personal level, we not only need to understand this but learn to understand our own mental tendencies and weak spots, how to refuel, how and when to ask for help. We need to improve everyone’s understanding of behaviour so that we can not only destigmatize mental illness but so that we can optimise mental health and realise human potential across the human race.

The Myth of Sanity – was a title borrowed from the brilliant US Clinical Psychologist Dr. Martha Stout the book is below.

For more from me –

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 access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

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Links and references:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing

Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to Profile Yourself to Unlock Your Full Potential

Stevenson, D and Famer, P (2017) Thriving at Work: The Stevenson / Farmer Review of mental health and employers

Stout, M (2002) The Myth of Sanity: Tales of Multiple Personality in Everyday Life

Image: Pexels.com