The definition of oversight, and how we view things

Oversight is a word that came up this week, with Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen appearing before the House Oversight Committee in the United States.

The Oversight Committee (or the Committee on Oversight and Reform, to give it its full title) is the main investigative arm of the US Government’s House of Representatives.

But it got me thinking about “oversight”.

Oversight, in this use, is oversight in the context of overseeing. The committee oversees everything, with a view to identifying and rooting out illegality or corruption.

So oversight is overseeing, authoritative, powerful, all-seeing.

But oversight can also be not seeing.

As in, “forgive me, that was an oversight on my part.”

The definition of oversight is:

  1. an unintentional failure to notice or do something, or
  2. the action of overseeing something.

These two definitions can, depending on the use, be poles apart in interpretation.

Oversight is the action of seeing everything, and oversight is also the fact of missing something.

And it strikes me that so much of the way we look at life can also be poles apart, depending on our interpretation, depending on our perspective, depending on the choice we make of how we view things.

Reality and almost everything in it is malleable.

There are things we can change, and there are things we can’t. Knowing the difference is important, because very many things we think we can’t change, we probably can.

Changing the things we can change starts with a choice of how we view things.

Episode 11: A solo episode on the power of honest conversation, why the conversation is a two-way street, and speaking truth to bulls**t.

Love

Love and “in love” are two different things.

“In love” is a beautiful fleeting moment.

Love, though, love is enduring and deep.

Even if we’re alone and haven’t found someone, or a relationship hasn’t worked out and we’ve endured the turmoil of separation, or we’re in the lifelong grieving process for someone no longer with us, love is still there, still deep within us.

Love is unquenchable. It influences every decision we make. To paraphrase Nietzsche, every little thing we do in life is to be loved a little more.

Three final things about human beings and love, as told to me by a wise man.

We are all lovable.

We are all loving.

We are all loved.

(Those three things were told to me by Frank Diamond, former missionary priest and malaria survivor, in episode #7 of my Life Well Lived podcast.)

Exposure

We are what we are most exposed to.

If we are exposed to hardship, we’re more likely to be hard.

If we’re exposed to abuse, we’re more likely to be abusive.

If we’re exposed to free-spirited beings, we’re more likely to be free-spirited.

As children, we have no choice over what we’re exposed to, and many spend the rest of their lives trying to understand and deal with that.

As adults, though, most of us have choices.

Choices about the work we do, choices about how we spend our leisure time, and who we spend it with, choices about where we live and how.

Those choices can seem difficult, impossible even, because as humans we’re hardwired to resist change, because for most of the 50,000 years of our species history, change was life-threatening.

Now, though, that’s almost never the case.

What are you exposed to, every day and every week? If you don’t like it, could you change it?

Unfinished business

It’s often tempting to go back.

To return to that project that you completed, but not as you’d have liked.

To take up an offer from that former employer, because things will be different or better this time.

To rekindle a relationship with a former lover, because the present is often more challenging than the sepia-toned past.

The appeal of unfinished business is usually a powerful force.

But we can only hope to do what we’re currently doing as well as we can possibly do it, and tie up as many loose ends as we can.

As difficult as it can be, we must try to become at ease with unfinished business, because life is all unfinished business. Almost everything is unfinished, until it eventually finishes, usually in a way we wouldn’t have chosen.

Going back can create negative energy flow.

Better to start clean, start new, start fresh.

Keep moving forward.

The toothbrush and the candles (a.k.a. Single-tasking, or the merits of anti-multi-tasking)

There is exceptional power in doing one thing at a time, and giving it all your focus.

It’s always been that way. Those who have the capacity to focus, to go narrow and deep, typically produce the best work.

The ability to do that, to focus on one task, perhaps for an extended period of time, to achieve something that matters, has been steadily eroded by the ubiquitous distractions of the modern world.

Distraction follows us everywhere. Occasionally people joke that the workplace, with its open plan and instant messaging, is the last place to go if you want to do real work.

Single-tasking, deciding to be an anti-multi-tasker, is not easy, when at any one time there are hundreds of options and expectations for your time.

But single-tasking is worth the struggle it takes to build the habit.

Like everything, habit starts with a 2-minute decision.

The idea for this post came to me last night, in a moment that I’m grateful to be able to recognise as every bit as ludicrous as it sounds. I was brushing my teeth, and there were two candles lit beside the bath. Instinctively, while brushing my teeth, I moved to blow out the candles. Single-tasking — brushing my teeth, then blowing out the candles — achieved a better, and less potentially embarrassing, outcome.

Next step: build that into my day to day in the real world, with things more important than a toothbrush or a candle.

Advertising, noise, silence, and the responsibility to make ourselves heard

A hundred years ago, James Joyce made a newspaper ad salesman Leopold Bloom the central character of Ulysses, and the slogans and devices and well-worn tropes of advertising are a subtle theme through plenty of Joyce’s work.

But Joyce lived in an era where radio had just been invented, where moving pictures were only beginning to gain traction (indeed, he opened Ireland’s first cinema, the Volta, in 1909), where there was no television, no Internet, no social media, no culture of relentless and incessant interpersonal and brand-to-target-audience messaging.

What would he have made of today?

We live in a world that is distracted and noisy at an unprecedented level.

A report in 2017 estimated that Americans are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertising messages every single day.

Is it any wonder that our brains are so addled from all the mental sorting we need to do, at an unconscious level, to engage with, ignore or compartmentalize all those messages in a meaningful way?

Is it any wonder that so many of us are overwhelmed, overcome with a yearning to switch off, escape, experience the release of yoga stretches or meditation or a beach overlooking the ocean at sunset?

Most of us are trying to sell something.

We’re trying to sell something, because it helps our status at the company watercooler conversation or quarterly meeting.

We’re trying to sell something, because it makes us feel useful, and being useful makes us valuable, and being valuable gives us an income which keeps us warm and dry and safe and loved. (At the bottom of it all, we mostly want to be warm and dry and safe and loved.)

Most of us also are trying to avoid being sold to.

We’re trying to avoid being sold to because being sold to can expose us to feelings of being fooled, because all of us at some point have had our desires or lack of knowledge exploited by an unscrupulous salesperson.

We’re trying to avoid being sold to, because that experience, the experience of being fooled, erodes our self-respect, so the occasion of being sold to can unearth feelings of self-loathing.

When most of us are trying to sell something at the same time as we’re trying to avoid being sold to, it creates a world of noise and friction.

With so much noise besetting almost all of us, almost every minute of every day, it’s tempting to do anything but add to the noise.

With so much noise, it’s tempting to make our default response to keep quiet.

But what happens when we have something to say? Something important? Something that can make a change that people need? A change that really can make the world, or whatever small part of it that we can influence, a better place?

Our only viable option is the long game. The long game requires us to strike a fine balance.

To be careful about adding to the noise, but to speak up — wholeheartedly, with humility and integrity — when what’s most needed is someone to speak up.

(** This post, like all these posts, was written primarily for me. It’s a result of my own struggle with the world. The massive reluctance to add to the noise that besets us all versus the need to speak up about something that needs people to speak up: the challenge of being in the modern world. That is what my whole Life Well Lived project is all about. Navigating the challenges of the world, becoming our best selves and ultimately living in a way that day by day adds up to a life well lived, one of contribution, fulfilment and happiness. Thank you for being here. I hope my contributions offer something of value, and an escape from the noise. **)

 

Truth and falsity

In the world right now, truth is at a premium.

This is the era of half a billion viewpoints on Twitter, where everyone has an opinion.

It’s the era of the Instagram filter, where not only is it possibly to skew the photos we take, but it’s actively encouraged by the platform itself.

It’s the era of the echo chambers of the Facebook News Feed, where we are routinely exposed not to counterpoints, where we might learn something new, but to the things believed precisely by people like us, which makes it inevitable that polarisation ensues.

It’s the era of fake news, when some of the proudest and most longstanding media institutions in the world stand accused by the President of the United States of making everything up. (It doesn’t really matter whether the news is fake or not; what matters is that enough doubt is planted in the minds of enough people to make the effect the same.)

Brene Brown, the great author, teacher and TED speaker, encourages us to speak truth to bullshit.

On belonging, she writes,

True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.

I believe that we have a sixth sense for the truth. Or at least that we have a sixth sense for when something doesn’t ring true, when something seems off, when something sounds fishy.

The truth — our own perfect, imperfect truth — is the best we have to go on.

John Keats, the poet who died almost 200 years ago at just 25 years of age, concluded his Ode on a Grecian Urn with the immortal lines:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

 

Mindfulness and Mindlessness

Kevin Barry, the Irish author, is an often compelling voice on the ways of the modern world.

He’s far from an ever-present commentator on all things life and living, but on his occasional forays onto radio or podcasts, he invariably offers thought-provoking statements on the world we’re in.

During a live interview on the Blindboy podcast, he talked about the mindfulness phenomenon that seems to be sweeping the world.

Talking about mindfulness, Barry said, “I have mixed feelings about the whole mindfulness thing. I think there’s a lot to be said for it, but there’s also a great amount to be said for mindlessness. About just going to that place and going, ‘Oh, f*** it.’ I’m just going to deal with things, and I’m not going to look inside too much.”

My own theory for this is that collectively humanity needs to find coping mechanisms for the deluge of distraction and bad news and helplessness that we feel in the world of 21st century, even though there is much evidence to suggest that there is plenty to be happy about.

Yet I think there is something to what Barry says about mindfulness and mindlessness.

Can mindfulness ever cause your mind to be too full? Where’s the line between mindfulness, defined as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”, and over-thinking?

Going too far the other direction, mindlessness can cause mindless acts, which might often have negative and far-reaching consequence.

But perhaps there’s a balance to be struck.

Being mindful when required to be mindful, being present when we discover we’ve been drawn into one of a million rabbit-holes that the brain routinely presents to us, with its self-limiting or self-sabotaging thoughts.

But also being a little mindless when we need to be. When there’s a task that must be done, and when thinking too much leads to procrastination and a constant state of un-done-ness, of loose ends gnawing at the edges of your brain.

Perhaps even the flow state owes something to mindlessness. The act of giving in fully and entirely to the subconscious, instead of drawing ourselves back to the present.

Knowing which we need and when is the challenge, and I’m not sure there’s any answer to that, other than trusting our intuition, because when we fully pay attention to our intuition and act on it, it rarely leads us astray.

The bright side of forgetting one’s headphones

I’m an audio geek.

I just love listening to things.

I’m talking listening to content – radio, podcasts, audiobooks, spoken word essays. When it comes to one-to-one human listening, I’m studying the art of active listening just now, which is a very different thing to the kind of listening most of us do on a daily basis.

Books have saved my life (honestly; I don’t feel I’m overstating that at all) and I’ve been won over by the Audible experience over the past two years, although I do have to have a pen and paper on hand for what I’m listening to to really stick, and I still much prefer the tangibility of real books.

I was always a radio lover, and have fond memories of late night and early morning radio with the soothing tunes and tones of one time RTE presenter Maxi.

In recent years, swayed by the endless choice and on demand quality offered by podcasts, I’ve moved more and more into the podcast listener experience, which in so many cases offers incredible production values and narrative verve, for free and whenever you want it.

So headphones have become an almost indispensable part of my clothing.

Phone, wallet, headphones.

When I run, I usually listen to podcasts on my headphones.

When I’m commuting to the city, I use my headphones on the way there and the way back (it can do a lot to ease the drudgery of hours spent crawling in city traffic jams).

I suspect I’m not alone in this headphone dependency. Almost everywhere I look, I see people plugged in, listening and watching their own radio and podcasts and audiobooks and TV series and Spotify playlists.

This morning, I forgot to bring my headphones. Left them on the cabinet inside the front door.

When I realised, five minutes down the road and rushing for a bus that is always on time, I experienced a moment of panic, knowing that I faced approximately four hours on buses today, and would not have the default option of headphones available to me.

As I write this, I’ve navigated the first 90 minute bus journey without headphones in maybe two years.

Here’s what’s happened so far.

  • I’ve been able to focus on reading my book without the compelling distraction of selecting from the infinitude of sounds available from my mobile device.
  • I experienced the serendipity of hearing a song I loved, playing at low, just-about-audible volume on the bus stereo.
  • I overheard some conversation at the little coffee place where I occasionally stop for an early morning bowl of porridge.

I heard the sounds of the world again.

Sounds that I’ve routinely been drowning out with my headphones.

Forgetting my headphones caused me a few moments of panic earlier, and I know that as this day progresses I will instinctively reach for them on a few occasions.

But I also know that I might notice things I would otherwise have missed.

And I know that being present to the world is to also be present to all the sights and sounds and tedium and wonder of it all.

And I decided to be grateful for the opportunity for new experiences provided by the simple, absent-minded act of forgetting one’s headphones.