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Five paradoxes of life and living: Black, white and grey

The more I think about how to live a life well lived, how to be our best selves both out in the world and inside our own head, the more I realise that life is full of paradoxes and conflicts.

Over the next week or so I will present five short paradoxes of life and living in 2018.

Paradox 1: The more certain and unambiguous our opinions, the further we get from the truth

In 2018 the world is drifting towards extremes.

Polarisation of opinion seems everywhere.

There is the Trump election despite a 46-48 loss in the popular vote. There is Brexit’s 52-48. There is marriage equality and abortion in Ireland (62-37 and 66-33 respectively), which saw Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times recently describe Ireland as having become a “two-thirds/one-third society: two-thirds broadly happy with liberal values and inclusiveness but one-third deeply unhappy with the way Ireland has changed”.

It seems that wherever we turn we hear someone who has certainty in their opinions.

Certainty of opinion, though, creates a fixed mindset, a closed worldview.

When we become resolute and unchangeable in our worldview, that’s the time to start asking questions.

This is not the same as doubt. Doubt can be pernicious and demotivating, but doubt comes from fear about the future, fear about the way things will turn out. Instead, thinking about the future as one of possibility rather than danger compels us to question the way things are and the way they can be.

Questioning invariably returns complexity. Things are complex. Real life is messy. Real life is never black or white.

The drift towards seeing everything as black or white ignores the fact that everything is actually a million shades of grey.


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The words we use, and how we use them

Talk is cheap, as they say.

What I've come to realise is not just how cheap talk is, and it can be very cheap, but how inadequate it is, too.

The trivial consequence: How often have you thought of the perfect retort ... hours after the opportunity came to actually say it?

The serious consequence: Incoherence and confusion are everywhere in life, and imprecise speech is usually the common denominator.

The words we use

The words we use are important and powerful, but words spoken typically bring about more confusion than clarity, or more hurt than inspiration.

Inspiration, when it comes, arrives by way of a lot more than mere words. Inspiration comes from charisma, it comes from body language, it comes from the electrical charge of the sentiments and honesty and humility and confidence behind the words much more than the mere words themselves.

It's often said that about the best public speakers, that their audience will forget all about what the speaker said, but remember forever how s/he made them feel.

Public speaking, then, is much more than the words spoken.

And the best words spoken are often first the best words written.

Leaving them that way (written, not spoken) might be the surest bet to getting your message across.

That brings a different challenge, of course. The challenge brought about by the collapse in human attention spans, by the proliferation of promotional marketing, by email fatigue and by the way we now surface-scan rather than deep-read.

But still, if clarity is a requirement, it's hard to beat a few words carefully chosen and written down.

(P.S. Because speech is so inadequate, so many work meetings are less than worthless, wasting precious time where instead of random talk, and all the incoherence and confusion it brings, people could be creating and contributing.)


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Work-related stress and the future

The news loves reports. A ready-made headline, of a 27% rise in this or a 42% fall in that, or one in three teenagers doing one thing or four in five pensioners doing the other.

I tend to take such stuff with a pinch of salt, knowing that there are often two beneficiaries of surveys and reports, and they are the media organisation with the space to fill and the marketing organisation with the thing to sell.

Still, I did pay attention when the report about skyrocketing work-related stress in Ireland crossed my gaze in the radio news bulletins first thing this morning.

The Economic and Social Research Institute reported that the figures more than doubled from 8% of the workforce in 2010 to 17% in 2015.

Among the stark figures were:

  • The Irish figure of 17% was still lower than the 19% average across Europe (based on data from the European Working Conditions Survey carried out in 2010 and 2015)
  • Workers faced with emotional demands (dealing with angry customers, or being forced to hide their feelings) were 21 times more likely to suffer stress than those who were not
  • Only 40% of Irish companies have policies in place to address workplace stress

The health implications of stress include cardio-vascular disease and depression. (I can’t say I developed any cardio-vascular disease, but I had several doses of heavy depression during my time in 9-to-well-after-5 roles.)

Other consequences of work stress, the report say, include absenteeism, increased job turnover and reduced morale. (I definitely saw all of those at close quarters too.)

The problem of work-related stress is not just created by the employer

The problem is not all on the side of employers or management, although they should definitely shoulder their share of the responsibility for fixing it.

I was an employee during that timeframe, and I was stressed to my eyeballs on plenty of days, but I don’t think I ever even considered suggesting it with any of my employers.

Why that might have been, I can’t say for sure. It could be that the avenues to facilitate such a discussion either did not exist or were not well advertised.

It could also be that I was just very fearful of being judged as weak or incompetent. Sucking it up and getting on with the tasks in hand seemed like the only option, even if the task list only ever expanded.

What I do know now is that I was not weak or incompetent, and I also know now that so many people were experiencing similar feelings and, like me, chose to keep those feelings to themselves.

Technology and stress

Technology also plays a significant role. The smartphone arrived with the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad followed in 2010, bringing with them the almost-always-on email inbox, which was liable to buzz with new work messages at all hours of the day and night.

In addition, increasingly distributed or remote workforces means many more companies now operate on a 16- or 18-hour workdays spread across multiple timezones.

The one certainty about all this is that it will take a combination of imaginative leadership, robust processes, engaged employees and, ideally, businesses with a mission above and beyond bare profit to reduce work-related stress for everyone. (It will definitely take more than a few fruit baskets and an office beer-keg…)

Reworking the definition of happiness

I sometimes think that the biggest obstacle to achieving happiness is that so many of us really, really, really don’t know what it actually is.

On Sunday, I read an article in Ireland’s Sunday Independent.

(Note to self: Stop reading newspapers, Shane. You know you’re happier when you give them a wide berth. From letter pages to columnists to editorials, they’re cover-to-cover complaints, and add so little value to your life, and bring your mood level down several notches quicker than almost anything else. If something is important enough, you will hear about it. Otherwise, just stop buying papers. It will help you save time, save money and be happier.)

Anyway, the Sunday Independent included a full-page broadsheet spread telling us how to survive spending time with toxic family members this Christmas. (For reference only, here’s the link. I’m not suggesting you read it.)

One of the pieces of advice was:

Aim for connection, not happiness

Don’t look for constant happiness — it can be superficial and you’re not going to get it. Instead look for shared connections and an understanding of one another. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, loves, losses?

That’s what would be really fulfilling. Not forced joviality — but real connection and belonging.

This one almost made me throw the newspaper across the room.

What it seems to be saying is that looking for joviality is required for a state of happiness, or even that happiness and “forced joviality” are one and the same thing.

In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of happiness; about the way we think of happiness.

I hear people say things like this all the time:

I don’t want to be happy. I don’t want to be satisfied.

As if happiness is lying in a hammock in Bali, sipping cocktails and contributing nothing to the world.

It’s not.

The absence of peace of mind is unhappiness. So for me, happiness could be defined as peace of mind in the moment.

Happiness is not joy, although joy is part of happiness.

Happiness is also love, starting with love of self, which for so many of us is the hardest bit about love.

Happiness is also grief, because for true grief there must be true love, and true love is essential to happiness.

Happiness is also contribution and giving.

Happiness is also living well, living intentionally, living purposefully.

Happiness is being present and accepting ourselves right now, and also trying to do something that will make us a little better tomorrow.

Happiness is a lot of things.

But forced joviality and having no room for negative emotions? That couldn’t be further from the truth.


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Lessons for living from William Goldman’s lessons for writing

Obituaries are both the most inspiring and saddest of any newspaper. The expanse of a life, distilled to an adulatory headline, a few hundred words, two dates—date of birth and date of death—and, space permitting, maybe a picture.

I’ve seen life and executive coaches and inspirational speakers encourage us to cast our minds forwards 10, 20, 40 years and write our own eulogy, as a way of focusing our minds on the fact that since we’ll be dead soon, maybe we should get to doing the things we believe we’re supposed to do.

[Daniel Harkavy is one such executive coach. He says, “When we take the time to write our eulogies, it creates this magnetic pull power that draws us forward. Our priorities and our vision for where we want to be as leaders and how we’ll get there come into sharp focus. This clarity enables us to make the best decisions, get up out of our comfortable patterns, create new habits, and start moving us toward a better future.”]

I read a couple of obituaries of William Goldman over the past week. Goldman was the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men, and wrote 20 other screenplays and the same number of novels. He died last week at the age of 87.

In one obituary the author reflected on Goldman’s lessons on writing, and it made me think that all the best teaching is universally applicable. Goldman’s lessons for writing, therefore, can be easily moulded to apply to anything and everything. Lessons for living in a few words about the practice of writing.

In one of his career memoirs, Goldman wrote:

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before.

And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right.

No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.

I think these words are also true for everything important in life. The discrepancy between the “diamond-bright ideas dancing in your brain” and the day-to-day “earthbound” reality is a real discrepancy, not an imagined one.

It’s how we deal with that on a daily basis that gets us through. Living each day and trying to do the right thing on that day, and keeping fingers crossed that doing the right thing enough times will either (a) safeguard us from the worst pitfalls, or, (b) when those pitfalls envelop us, as invariably they will at some point, give us the strength to accept what we must accept and overcome what we must overcome.

Asked once about the task of adapting Stephen King’s Misery into versions for film and theatre, Goldman said, “You cross your fingers and never stop. Praying is also good.”

Cross our fingers and never stop.

It might not be a Hemingway six-word short story, but it’s good enough for me, today.


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Gary Vee on happiness — the ultimate return on investment

I’ve been paying attention to Gary Vaynerchuk for about two years now.

I really like his intelligence, his integrity and authenticity and his combination of absolute humility and unbreakable confidence.

His expletive-laden speeches and general tone can undoubtedly rub some people up the wrong way. (One example from a recent keynote speech, on the state of the economy and the opportunities available to business owners right now: “If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re not crushing it right now … you suck.”)

But when you cut through the bravado and listen to the message, it’s rare that he isn’t hugely convincing, and part of his appeal that while his brand has skyrocketed, and his businesses have benefited, he isn’t leveraging that brand to sell his audience anything (apart from the odd pair of sneakers).

The are several “Gary Vee on happiness” videos around the web, and all of them add value.

Recently he encouraged people to take a good hard look at why they buy certain things. “The amount of people that have a job they hate and they buy things they don’t care about to impress people they don’t give a f*** about, scares the sh** out of me.” (Check out the 2-minute video on that note here)

In another video from earlier this year he says, “I just don’t understand how people think wealth is the gateway to happiness. The gateway to happiness is to love your process. Whatever that may be. Whether that creates wealth or doesn’t. Whether that creates legacy and art or doesn’t. Whether it creates impact in the world or it doesn’t.”

Below he talks about the ultimate ROI being happiness … and the freedom to decide what makes you happy on a daily basis.

Gary Vee on happiness


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The life-changing magic of skill stacking

Usefulness—the feeling of being useful, to ourselves, to our loved ones, to society—is a powerful contributor to overall happiness, and the concept of skill stacking can, I believe, be a great way of increasing our feelings of usefulness and contribution.

Irrespective of where you are in life, whether you’re a 16-year-old school student of a 76-year-old retiree, there are several things that you can be confident that you are good at.

These are your skills. Now, let it be known that for the concept of skill stacking, you don’t need to excel at your list of skills, or have reached a level of mastery that makes you the top 1% in that area. You just need to be good at them.

Skill stacking is the idea of layering a few individual skills one on top of the other, and when they’re stacked they can create an entirely and compound skill. A skill stack.

For example, you might have taken up running last year, and you’re now training for your first 10k. You might be really good at organising. And you might spend a lot of time on Instagram.

On the face of it, those three skills—running, organising and Instagram—have nothing to do with each other.

But what might happen if you stacked the three skills together?

What happens is that it can create ideas and opportunities.

You could organise a group of running enthusiasts on Instagram, who could support each other in their own individual journeys, or you could use your organisational skill to create a list of Instagram accounts that provide value to people just beginning their own running regime.

Any set of skills can be stacked to create something bigger and better.

With a little commitment and a little discipline (say, 20 minutes a day), you can create something that might be of interest to a niche audience, something that matters, something that adds to our feelings of usefulness, and ultimately, something that can increase our levels of fulfilment and overall happiness.

They say together is better. That doesn’t just go for people. It goes for the things people are good at too.


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Pessimism is a game that’s impossible to win

One of the enemies of happiness, of peace of mind in the moment, is pessimism: the uncertainty, anxiety and fear we have about the future at any given point in time.

Jane Austen, the 19th century novelist, has a line in Emma that goes: “Perfect happiness, even in memory, is not common.”

For many of us, though, memory is the only place where we’re truly happy. Because when we remember any given situation, the one thing that we don’t recall, because it has been erased by the passage of time, is the uncertainty and fear about the future that we held in that particular moment.

(Kevin Barry is an Irish novelist working 200 years after Austen. His thoughts on happiness owe something to this retrospective state of happiness, of a happiness in memory because the memory doesn’t contain the uncertainty, anxiety and fear that we held deep in our psyches in real time. He told Blindboy in a live podcast interview recently, “I’m generally moaning and grizzling at the time, but as soon as I leave a place I become nostalgic for it. I think, Yeah, I was happy back there.”)

So how do we become happy in real time? How do we have that peace of mind in the moment that is a hallmark of true happiness?

Things can go wrong. Things can always go wrong. Things do go wrong.

But how often do things go right? Or at least, how often do things not go wrong in the way that we have projected in our minds?

Retreating into pessimism about the future, allowing ourselves to be anxious about things going wrong, is a game that is impossible to win.

As Tesla founder Elon Musk, in an interview with Joe Rogan in September, said, “I’d rather be optimistic and wrong, than pessimistic and right.”

Pessimism is a game we can’t win, even if we’re right.

And optimism is a game that helps us win, even if we’re wrong.


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Acceptance vs Ambition (Part 2)

Last week I wrote a piece about acceptance, ambition and profound truth. Since then I’ve been thinking more about acceptance, and how for some reason it’s both important to have acceptance, and to resist acceptance and aim for ambition instead.

And I thought to myself:

Why would I accept something I can change?

The only reason to accept something, I think, is when it falls on the “uncontrollables” side of the weighing scales of life.

Too often, though, we accept things we can change.

We accept things sometimes because we don’t fully believe in ourselves and our power to change them. We accept things sometimes because we are afraid of the new reality that changing them might bring.

Perhaps the most cited lines ever written by the spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson are:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

This — the fear that we are powerful beyond measure — might be the main reason we find ourselves accepting things that we can and should aim to change.

If we can change something for the better, to make our tiny corner of the world better for us and better for everyone around us, who are we to accept the status quo?


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Posts About Energy #2: The Ripple Effect

I was never a brilliant science student at school, but I remember something that means a lot more now, with all the experiences of adulthood.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

The first action takes energy. And the energy generates the equal and opposite reaction.

If we put it another way, energy creates energy. Put another way again, we get back energy when we give it.

We can be intentional about the kind of energy we’re giving out today.

We can be intentional about this every day.

Every moment of every day is an opportunity to generate energy. It doesn’t have to mean a sudden overhaul of our entire personality. It can start small. It can start with an intentionally warm smile for the barista, or a brighter-than-usual hello for the bus-driver.

You might not get this energy back with interest the first time, but what happens if we do it twice, three times, four times?

What happens is a ripple effect.

And when we start to generate positive energy, those ripple effects are a sight to behold.

Chances are, if we’re not creating positive energy, it’s very likely we’re unintentionally bringing the negative variety. And here’s the thing: negative energy creates a ripple effect too.

Which is it to be?

[This is the second post in an open-ended series of musings on energy. Click here for all posts in this series.]


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