Imagine there’s no language. Tough one, eh? Even John Lennon didn’t get you to try to think of that.
Words are the bricks and mortar that we construct the world from. They don’t just describe our reality, they create it. A person who talks about their ‘biggest problem’ is telling you that they have not one, but several and that one of them is taking more of their attention. But does their assertion of such make that problem smaller, more manageable?
As I’ve said before, the stories we tell about our lives have the power to shape them. Language is one of the ways we create meaning – a crucial way. We say, this happened because of that. I didn’t get that job because I’m not smart enough. I failed because I don’t have what it takes. The meaning we create can empower us and urge us forward or it can cut us down and cripple us.
As a cognitive hypnotherapist, words are the tools of my trade and the tools of change. I strive to use them with the utmost care, to listen attentively to how they are used. And abused. So when twice this week I notice red flags waving furiously at me around the use of language, I stopped and took notice.
‘Grumpy Old Woman’
My mum inspires me. She was an accountant and retired early to take up a second career as a counsellor. At 75, when she’s not dancing or taking an exercise class of some sort, she’s creating art or playing majhong or backgammon. I aspire to her vibrancy, her positivity, her compassion and her love of life.
So when she describes herself as a ‘grumpy old woman,’ it jars. It’s true, she had been describing something that annoyed her – the local coffee house blocking the side walk with their tables and chairs – and in that moment was not her usual sunny self. To extrapolate from that moment of venting frustration to describe herself in terms of this identity of ‘grumpy old woman’ was first of all, not true, and secondly, doing her a disservice.
I get it – in that moment Mum was hearing her complaints and saying, in effect, ‘it’s not me, it’s my alter-ego, the grumpy old woman.’ No matter how we strive not to complain, we all vent our frustrations sometimes. And, to my mind, that’s okay. It can be the first step in finding a solution or to taking action – in Mum’s case, speaking to the manager of the coffee house. But to say that’s who we are, to identify with this complainant in such a way that we ‘become’ this character, doesn’t serve. The label is not something to aspire to and it is self-denigration.
‘Hold your feet to the fire’
The second thing that I heard, even though it has been said in my presence a number of times, was spoken in my mastermind group. I have the privilege and honour of being a member of a wonderful group of business women who meet twice a month to share with each other the progress we are making at moving our businesses forward. We provide support for each other, cheer-leading and a hive-mind for problem solving. And one of our main functions is to provide accountability and this has been described by my sister members as ‘holding each other’s feet to the fire.’
Now I have a vivid imagination. And having been a chef, I know a lot about burns. (At one point in my career, I had so many burns on my right forearm – from reaching into the oven – that I apparently looked like a self-harmer.) So you won’t be surprised to hear that I recoil at this phrase. What is it saying? That building a business is so hard that one needs the threat of torture to follow through on the things we have undertaken to do?
I appreciate being accountable to the other members – it keeps me on a timetable when I might otherwise put things off. But it doesn’t need to come with the threat of a pyro pedicure. Of course, running your own business can be tough, as anyone who is set off down the road of self-employment knows. But if we are focused on the struggle and the difficulty, if that is where we have put our attention, would we even notice an opportunity that was easy and painless?
Being mindful of our language, of the way we talk about our lives, particularly when things aren’t going as smoothly as we would like, can make a huge difference to how quickly and easily we are able to manage life’s curve balls. And, you know, if talking yourself down has become a habit to the point you’re feeling stuck, hypnotherapy can help. Get in touch.
Here’s a thought: what if your failures are more valuable than your successes? I’m going to guess that this idea is repulsive to you. Because, let’s face it, failure feels horrible.
But let me tell you why I love this idea: I’ve failed an awful lot. I would prefer not to say how much. But if it is true that my failures are valuable? Why, now I’m sitting on a veritable fortune! Suddenly, instead of feeling horrible about all of the times I’ve got it so very very wrong, I get to feel a little bit good.
The idea of failure having value isn’t new. We have probably all heard the story of Thomas Edison’s process relating to the invention of the light bulb. The story goes that when asked by a reporter how it felt to have failed 1,000 times, his reply was:”I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
But as a culture, we don’t encourage failure. We seem to prefer to assign blame and find fault. As if failure isn’t painful enough, we hand our punishment and public ridicule.
I came across the idea of the lean start-up in a book called, strangely enough, The Lean Start-up by Eric Ries. It goes something like this: rather than sink a ton of money into a new business venture, create the smallest, cheapest version of it you can, get it to market quickly, see what people like and hate about it, adjust accordingly and repeat.
I loved this idea, and not just from a business perspective – I was immensely excited about how this idea applied to many many aspects of our lives. And so I was thrilled when John Krumboltz and Ryan Babineaux published their book Fail Fast, Fail Often (which I highly recommend). In it they argue that people who are happy and successful spend less time planning and more time acting, learning as they go and benefiting from experiences and opportunities that they could never have foreseen.
Here’s the thing: we should be trying out all sorts of different things, especially when we are young and have no idea which direction we want our lives to take. But also when we are older and have no idea which direction we want our lives to take. We should be experimenting. We should be treating our lives as petri dishes – observing what grows and thrives, what shrivels and dies. All too often we are making mistakes – in our choice of training course or career, in our choice of partner – and then getting married to them. We have spent so much time and so much money that to admit we were wrong just feels unbearable and so we grit our teeth and keep going.
How would it be if instead we tried it out? If we tried out lots of different things? Why not treat your life as a big laboratory in which you get to run tests and experiments, asking yourself, “Do I love this?” and making the answer to that question the sole criterion for whether you invest more of yourself into it? Why not be playful about it, be curious, be open?
The failures when they happen – which they will, because that’s the whole point of this exercise – might rock your boat but they won’t sink the ship.
And if, in the process of this experimentation, you find the thing that you would love to spend your life doing, there is going to be a way. It might not look the way you thought it would. Your lavish, five star restaurant might turn out to be a food truck. Your career as a Hollywood costume designer might translate into making steam punk clothing for your Etsy store. But I promise you this – there is always going to be a way to live your dream and do what you love.
But first you have to dare to fail.
You don’t have to do it alone. The next Transformers Program begins is September. Or if you want to start sooner or prefer to work one on one, call me.
The idea of a calling or vocation seems a little old-fashioned in our economy, where it’s quite common to talk of ‘gigs’ and ‘portfolios.’ It implies a sacredness that few 21st century humans relate to as well as a singularity of mission that, to our multi-tasking selves, might just seem a little bit odd. But perhaps the real source of this oddness to us comes down to the fact that it might indeed be possible to have a job that encompasses all of who we are. Imagine that instead of trying to squeeze all of who we are into a tiny job description we were able to expand in the spaciousness of a calling! So strange when what we are used to is a form of capitalism that was never interested in trying to accommodate multi-faceted and multi-facinated individuals.
Even if you don’t recognise a calling in yourself, it is probably there. Like a voice softly but urgently calling you forward. Calling you out of the shadows. Calling you into a wider sense of your own humanity and a wider sense of what you have to contribute to humanity. That you HAVE TO contribute to humanity, because, if you don’t then who will? There is no-one else because there is no-one like you. No-one with your unique abilities and strengths, no-one with exactly your constellation of talents and skills, passion and compassion.
For each of my friends who have done exactly what they set out to do in their lives – Sheryl McDougald, Sunshine Coast artist; Ruth Wilson, community leader and grower – there is another who had big dreams that they either didn’t pursue or gave up on. Who didn’t fulfill her or his potential. ‘Potential’ having the same root as potency meaning power. Because when you give up on your dream, you give up on your power. Your power to show up in the most effective, meaningful, purposeful way in the world. Because when that happens – and it happens horribly often – it is too easy to sink into the kind of despair that would have you believe that life’s unfair and only the lucky few achieve ‘that’ kind of success (whatever ‘that’ looks like to them.)
That was me. I convinced myself it was all or nothing at all. I was either going to blaze a magnificent Hollywood trail with my screenplays or I was going to chuck it in. All the while my dear friend Sheryl never stopped painting and sketching and collecting objects from the beach to store in her thinking room for the time they might insinuate their way into her work. I let myself believe that if my writing wasn’t work then doing it was an indulgence – when actually the indulgence was giving up and feeling sorry for myself. Because, while putting on the mantel of victimhood can afford some temporary relief after a rejection, to wear it so long that it begins to meld with ones skin is a form of severe self-harm. Stop it! Really – stop it right now.
And start. Pick up a pen or a paintbrush. Create something imperfect. Dust off the piano, play something (but maybe get it tuned first.) Join a writers group. Get a group of friends together and decide to make a difference in the world.
Just don’t give up. And don’t close your ears off to the calling.
Today’s blog post is brought to you courtesy of an unhealthy dose of sleep deprivation and generally having my life abducted by a little alien……
Meet Kniola. She is a 12 week old Xoloitzcuintli, aka Mexican Hairless, dog. She is very very smart. She also likes food – a lot. She will therefore, with some patience on the part of her humans (I being one), perform quite extraordinary feats. See her sit! See her lie-down! See her wait on the landing to have her coat taken off! (She is hairless – she needs clothes. Lots of clothes. Will someone please inform the weather that it is spring and kindly to quit with the fucking snow…..)
I dutifully attend the puppy training classes. I learn that I have approximately 1.5 seconds to reward her behaviour before she forgets why it is she has been awarded a particularly delicious piece of dehydrated turkey. I learn the commands and the hand signals and the fact that the trainer’s pepperoni trumps the aforementioned turkey treat.
And watching her, I can’t help but wonder – could I be trained like that? I mean, I like food – a lot. Could I use food as a training tool on myself?
I’m not particularly disciplined. I’m sure if Kniola were responsible for supplying me with my food rather than vice versa, I would not on a fairly regular basis partake of Earnest’s Serious Chocolate ice cream. I would be slim and fit, perhaps even athletic. Instead, she has the occasional piece of pepperoni and I have the rather regular pizza.
We are creatures of habit – it’s a cliché that derives its truth from the fact that our environment is saturated with information that our unconscious minds are processing constantly. This draw on our brain’s processing power requires that we make efficiency savings – and habits are just that. The more of our behaviour we can automate, the more of our brain power is freed up for other, higher level functions such as learning and decision-making.
The unexamined habit may not be worth the brain power it saves. Are your habits serving you or are you serving them? Are they, in fact, making your life easier, or do they just make your life feel easier (because sometimes Netflix and beer can co that…..)
Figuring out how to manage our negative habitual behaviour is crucial to the quest for deep change and lasting transformation. Very often it is the bad habits – indulging in computer games, Facebook and the aforementioned utterly divine chocolate ice-cream – that prevent us reaching our goals, whether they be completing a project or attaining a certain dress size.
Could our bad habits, properly managed, motivate us by being rewards? Sure, you would need a little will power and self-discipline at the outset, enough to decide, say, that ice cream and pizza will henceforth only be allowable as a reward. Would 5 minutes on Facebook be okay if I have just worked solidly for an hour? If I eat healthily all week, could I allow myself a treat on weekends?
My unscientific answer? Yes. Here’s my truth – I’m not going to give up pizza and ice cream for life, not for my health and not to look even better than I already do (!) Neither am I going to forego Facebook or Freecell. It’s all about balance. It’s about using those things you enjoy, in moderation, to move you toward the other, more noble, things you want in your life – achievement of your dreams, creative expression, self-actualisation or whatever you name your higher calling. At some point, their pursuit will be reward enough.
In the meantime, appeal to your inner puppy dog.
Two weeks from now, the USA goes to the polls to elect their next president.
After he secured his party’s nomination, Barack Obama gave a speech in New Hampshire. The still black-haired future president told his audience that day that the change they so desperately desired was on it’s way. He had a three word message for them – yes we can.
Eight years on and we all feel a little let down, don’t we? Even if we’re not American citizens or residents, we had all wanted more. More than the rhetoric of Hope with a capital H. More action behind the soothing words.
But he says it right there in New Hampshire: “It’s not what I can do; it’s what we can do together.” It isn’t enough to put your X in a box once every four years; you have to put your shoulder to the wheel of what you believe in. It isn’t down to one person and it never was.
We were, all of us, trained to ask permission. As a child, I quickly learned that ‘I want doesn’t get,’ that ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ might possibly get me closer to the thing that I desired, especially if spoken in a particularly whining or wheedling tone. The mantle of authority passed from parent to teacher – ‘please miss, may I go to the bathroom?’ – then from teacher to boss.
‘Please sir – may we have some more?’ we ask, modern day Oliver Twists. May we have some more justice for the poor and the sick? May we have some more protection for our environment and our wildlife? May we have some more fairness and equality? Like good children, we do what we were trained to do – we ask nicely.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m all for good manners. It doesn’t cost anything to acknowledge a fellow human being who is doing us a kindness or a service. I see your worth, I acknowledge the energy you are expending on my behalf and I appreciate you, we’re saying.
But asking permission is a different thing.
How many of us are, at some level of our being, waiting for someone with authority or influence to tell us ‘yes we can’? In Cognitive Hypnotherapy we refer to this as having an ‘external locus of control’ (ELOC): you have placed the power to make decisions and grant wishes outside yourself. It’s opposite, funnily enough, is ‘internal locus of control’ (ILOC) – you’re the boss and you get to say what happens.
In his book The Success Principles (which I thoroughly recommend), Jack Canfield places ‘Take 100% Responsibility for Your Life’ at the very top of the list. Success principle number one is a hard lesson. Take 100% responsibility? I didn’t invite that drunk driver to nearly knock me off my bike then get out of his car and punch me! No, you didn’t. But you are responsible for how you respond to this event, for whether you let your anger about it blight your life or you take your arnica and self-defense lessons and accept that some people sometimes behave like jerks.
The uncomfortable truth is that we often like it when someone else is in the driver’s seat, as long as they are going the right way. It is comforting sometimes to be able to blame (Brene Brown uses her wonderful humour to get this point across.) But every time we don’t show up as leaders in our own lives, every time we abdicate responsibility for our results, we drift a little further away from the path to being the very best version of ourselves we can be.
We let ourselves down. We sell ourselves short. And while we love to blame our politicians for the fine state we’ve gotten ourselves into….well, we voted for them.
I know it’s hard to move forward without the support and validation that you’d like from your partner, boss, friends, parents and co-workers. But we are all leaders – we lead ourselves. Want to write that book? Yes you can. Want to open that retro clothing store? Yes you can. Want to hike Kilimanjaro? Yes you can. Want to take up painting? Yes you can.
Want to stop asking permission to do the thing that makes your heart sing, to do the thing you were born for? Altogether now: YES WE CAN.