What’s their motivation?

Everyone has a motivation.

I’m not talking so much about motivational. Motivational can be found everywhere you look, and it’s very often a great thing. Whatever gets us moving is a good thing. The origin of the word “motive” comes from the Latin verb movere meaning “to move”.

No, I’m talking here about motivation.

When someone does something, what’s their motivation? Is it genuine? Is it caring? Is it well-intentioned? Or is it self-promoting or self-protecting? When someone we see up close does something, we tend to know, when we take a little time in solitude to ponder and reflect on it a little, whether their motivations were generally good.

The question of motivation also applies way beyond our closest circle.

When you read something in the news, what’s the motivation of the writer and the organisation who brought it to you?

At its most aspirational, journalism is a quest for truth and accountability. It is, or was, a noble craft. But now, in an era when we have the double-whammy of so few people pay for newspapers and there are so many newspapers and media outlets to choose from, the question of motivation is a good one to ask.

When we see a media report about an opinion poll, a new medical breakthrough, or a new superfood, the question “what’s their motivation?” is a decent place to start.

It’s not about default cynicism or distrusting everyone by default, but blind faith and trust usually leads us somewhere we don’t want to go.

Trust has to be earned, and when it’s broken it can take forever to restore.

For so much media now, the motivation is one of these:

  • They want you to click, because each new pageview triggers a few more adds which adds a few fractions of a cent from advertising revenue to their bottom line
  • They want you to share, because each new share gets a few more clicks, and a few more pageviews
  • They want you to dwell and go down the rabbit-hole, because each second you spend there is another second in which you might see another ad
  • They want your attention, because your attention, combined with the attention of thousands of others, adds up to some value to them and adds to their bottom line
  • They want you to see the world a certain way, their way, so that you’ll come back again tomorrow and next week and next year

[It’s not all like this, of course. News is not all negative and not all fake. News and the media play a significant role in holding malign power-brokers to account. But lots of what we see online on news media sites is not journalism but “content”.]

The same question — what’s their motivation? — is valid across the spectrum, from local politicians to central Government to charities to financial institutions to business. What’s their motivation?

What’s my motivation?

Please ask this question here too: What’s my motivation? Why am I doing this?

I could offer you an answer, and the answer would be something like this — that I do this because I would like to become better at communicating, because I believe great communication can change the world for the better; that I do this to practice my writing; that I do this to send thoughts into the world and see where they go; that I do this to try to help others see things differently in a similar way that other people have helped me see things differently. You could also say this work is selfish: I want to do this work. I want people to value and respect the work I do. I want that value and respect to lead to something that can help me to make a living for me and my family, and maybe if that happens I can keep doing the work. If I have to do something else, I won’t be able to do this.

But your own answer, whatever answer you come up with after your own reflection, is probably more valid to you than anything I say to you here.

Thanks for being here, and if you trust me to some extent, I’m grateful for that and as I try to figure out the world and how it works and how we can all life well within it,  I’ll do my best never to disrespect that trust.


We all falter, fall and fail

It’s a basic human failing, an unavoidable element of the human condition. Think of the person in the world you most admire: they’ve faltered; they’ve fallen; they’ve made mistakes that they will never, in a hundred lifetimes, want to repeat.

There’s something strange about the world right now, with all its light-speed communications and the possibility — or danger — that something we do, or something that is done to us, might “go viral” and bring an awareness of our worst side to the world.

The Internet, with its billions of YouTube videos and Instagram pics and Facebook posts and tweets and blogs and memes and everything in between, is both so incredibly noisy that almost nothing can be heard, and so powerful that one single thing, one clip, one moment, one accusation, can be seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people in an instant.

Jon Ronson, the excellent popular non-fiction journalist and podcaster who has written about the weirdness of the military, the way we think about terrorists and the way psychopaths are diagnosed and treated, wrote about this phenomenon in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

It includes stories like that of Justine Sacco, who posted a juvenile and distasteful joke to Twitter and woke up at the other end of her long-haul flight to realise that the Internet had torn her life apart overnight.

The human condition includes the very best and very worst of us

What would it be like if others were to judge our entire lives, the collection of twenty million minutes we spend on this earth, on our worst moment?

It’s a popular catchphrase in the personal development industry: to present “our best self” to the world. It’s admirable too. I’ve used it on many occasions.

The flip side of our best self is, of course, that we also have a worst self that we try to hide.

The realisation that every single one of us has both this best and worst side, a combination of light and dark that makes every human human, should be a comfort to us in the moments when we inevitably fall, falter and fail.

Samuel Beckett wrote, in his own unique way, in a line that has itself been hijacked (much like I’m doing now…) by the Internet hunger for easy sound bites and catchy one-liners:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

We should not judge ourselves on our worst moments, in the same way that we know our best moments are not typical either.

We should exercise self-compassion and self-forgiveness and try again, in the knowledge that the future, as well as holding the glorious moments when the stars align and we achieve a moment of transcendence and for a moment all is perfect with the world, the future will also bring our own inevitable failings.

Let us not, then, look back in anger or bitterness or regret. When the darkness arrives again, as the human condition says it inevitably will, let us try at least to step out of that darkness as best we can.

Let us do the best we can in this five minutes that’s in front of us now.


The time for vulnerability

Vulnerability can be a superpower.

It is a state of being that has benefited greatly from the work of Dr Brene Brown, in her TED talk and her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.

On what vulnerability is, Brown has this to say:

I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure … Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity … But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage. When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome?’ When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?

So as the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity, vulnerability can be a superpower.

But I suspect there’s a time and a place for it.

We need to work up to it. We need to be prepared to bring it, and bring it fully when the calling comes — at moments where there is the promise of great growth.

The flipside of openness to vulnerability is the absolute need to recognise its true and unmistakable power, and therefore to respect it as much as we respect anything in this world.

Vulnerability is a two-way street. Honest, vulnerable conversation between two open people can open doors in a dozen different directions, creating possibilities we might never have anticipated.

But bringing your vulnerable self to casual conversation, dropping emotional truths into the chit-chat at the coffee queue, can be counterproductive.

(A good way to avoid this trap is to reduce the amount of worthless chit-chat in your life. Idle talk promotes idleness.)

The writing calling

This — a daily attempt to write a short piece about life and all the billions of tiny dots that connect us all, in our external, physical worlds and the internal worlds where activity can go on almost incessantly in our conscious and subconscious minds, all the hours of the day — is at least partly a concerted attempt to build a writing habit.

At every point of my life, I have been drawn to writing and the written word with a force that has been irresistible (at least, I have never been able to resist it). At moments of the deepest crises I have sought and found solace in the written word. During moments of levity and bliss, I have discovered in the written word vindication for my joy.

For most of that time, my default was to delve into the written words of others. I did write, but it was a day-trading sort of writing. I worked as a journalist for a couple of publishing houses, but in the end, career progression being what it is and seniority in the workplace calling for different skills and focus, it ended up that I was writing much less and business-planning and strategising much more.

And through all that the voice at the back of my head, the one that whispers in your ear in a way that, over time, becomes impossible to ignore, has encouraged me not to abandon the writing of others, but to enrich it by writing my own.

To write, because the act of writing is in itself a quiet and blissful time. To write, wherever that writing goes. To write, because not writing is impossible.

So this month, this January month, when my pattern in the past has often been to start the year with great intentions moulded not out of my own internal dreams and aspirations but out of the ambitions and the priorities and the lives of others, this month I’ve committed to writing one piece each weekday and hitting publish.

These daily musings, on Monday to Friday mornings, are as much for me as they are for anyone who might read them, although of course it is never a bad thing if you or anyone reads this and is able to take something valuable out of it, to dust off and polish and put on display in your own private world just for you.

Writing and the divine fairy dust

For me, the act of writing has always promised to connect me to the divine, or whatever you like to call that thing that seems divine: the almighty, the cosmos, the universe, Mother Nature, the infinite intelligence, the higher power, God. On occasion, that promise has been delivered, bringing with it a feeling of flow and inspiration that becomes tangible and scatters a film of bright fairy dust on everything.

I know that to experience that fairy-dust, the only thing that I can do is to keep writing and try to expect nothing in return.

In this write-and-publish daily exercise, through that strange unexplained alchemy of the way the world works, I’ve reached for different things in my reading and the right things have found me to help me write.

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art has given me a jolt of the reality, the possibility and the compulsion that comes with the act of creating anything.

I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic this morning in an idle moment before the workday delivered its own momentum, and the opening chapter seemed to have been written just for me. It’s a passage about a writer called Jack Gilbert, no relation to Elizabeth, who Elizabeth knew little about and never met, and who is now deceased.

Jack Gilbert’s encouragement for writers

Elizabeth followed Jack into a creative writing teaching job at the University of Tennessee and inherited his office and felt his presence even in his absence.

A student who had worked with Jack during his tenure described the advice he had given when she revealed that she might like to become a writer:

He smiled at the girl with infinite compassion and asked, “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”

I don’t know what treasures might be hidden inside me, waiting to be unearthed, but I’m working to believe they are there. The creative process is never easy. There are a thousand reasons not to do it, from “Why bother?” to “Who cares?” to “Is this just an exercise in delusional egomania?”

But if there are treasures hidden inside me, maybe this commitment to write every day can help me to break ground. Thank you for being here to bear witness to the early days of this work.

Would you like to receive my thoughts via email? As part of the Life Well Lived Project, I send out a bulletin of the stuff I’ve thought about, read, watched, enjoyed, experienced or pondered every weekend, and one longer essay (usually on the first Friday of every month). I also try to write regular shorter blogs (such as this one) on weekdays. You can sign up to receive them here.

The assertiveness equation

It’s a common piece of advice in our progress through the game of life: the need to assert ourselves.

To build assertiveness. To show assertiveness. To be assertive.

I recall vividly the distinction that was drawn between assertiveness and aggressiveness. (Assertive = good; aggressive = bad.)

We can’t achieve what we’d like to do, we can’t be who we’d like to be, we can’t make the change we’d like to make — either in our own lives or the lives of the people we care about — without asserting ourselves.

But asserting ourselves can become a bit like a futile locking of horns. It can become an exercise in us against them, and for what reason? Because we’re right? Or they’re wrong? Because we might lose face or reputation if we back down? Because we might lose face or reputation if we’re seen to back down?

I think the key ingredient to effective assertiveness, then, is values.

Values are the things that are most important to you. The non-negotiable characteristics which guide how you communicate, how you conduct yourself and how you do business, whatever that business is.

Values are signposts to living the way you want to live.

Assertiveness without values will likely achieve little of note in the long-term.

Assertiveness + values is a recipe for lasting success, measured day by day by whether you are living the way you want to live.

Values are always evolving and need work but when you take the time to think about them and list them out and try to live by them, they do two great things for assertiveness:

  1. They make it much easier to be assertive when a situation calls for assertiveness
  2. They make the assertiveness much more productive, because it’s driven by something meaningful. It’s not just an exercise in us against them.

Would you like to receive my thoughts via email? As part of the Life Well Lived Project, I send out a bulletin of the stuff I’ve thought about, read, watched, enjoyed, experienced or pondered every weekend, and one longer essay (usually on the first Friday of every month). I also try to write regular shorter blogs (such as this one) on weekdays. You can sign up to receive them here.

Seamus Heaney and the wisdom of calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon

Seamus Heaney, the late great Irish Nobel laureate, gave a beautiful and compelling commencement address to the students of the University of North Carolina on May 12, 1996.

Heaney touches something deep in me. It is, perhaps, his great sense of truth. Never in all the hours down the years that I read or listened to his words did I feel that I was being performed to, that I was receiving a version that Heaney was projecting into the world.

I always felt, at some deep physiological level — at the base of the amygdala or the heart or whatever body part it is that recognises truth for what it is — that I was witness to some profound and unfiltered authenticity. His soul-centred spiritual wisdom communicated itself outwards through every pore and body tic. The words, those gorgeous words of his, crafted into pitch-perfect poetry, were the cherry on the top but what attracted me to Heaney was the whole package of him.

While there are hours of audio and video on YouTube, his North Carolina speech seems to exist online only in its written form. But still, for anyone who has listened to the words and tones of Heaney, reading the written words of this speech is almost the same as hearing them spoken aloud.

It is a work that is beautiful and compelling, in large part at least, because of Heaney’s reticence in giving it in the first place.

The world … expects a commencement speaker to arrive with a set of directives, a complete do-it-yourself success kit, which he or she then issues to the graduating class; the commencement speaker’s appointed role is to provide a clear-cut map of the future and a key to navigating it as elegantly and profitably as possible … But while that is what the world prescribes, the inner laws of this particular speaker’s being make him extremely anxious about laying down laws or mapping the future for anybody.

For Heaney, the only true path was through uncovering the deep and secret truths we hold within ourselves, and which only we can find, and taking those truths to navigate our way through the uncharted waters of our own experience.

I hope it will be obvious why I tell you this: I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another.

Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.

And whatever life holds, for you and me and any of us, the only necessity is that we keep sucking breath into our lungs, put our head down and just get started. To get started, even if the going is tough. To get started, especially if the going is tough.

Luckily, in a commencement address you only have to get started and keep going. Luckily for you and for me there is no necessity to start again. But for you today, class of 1996, starting again is what it is actually all about. By graduating from this great and famous university, you have reached a stepping stone in your life, a place where you can pause for a moment and enjoy the luxury of looking back on the distance covered; but the thing about stepping stones is that you always need to find another one up there ahead of you. Even if it is panicky in midstream, there is no going back. The next move is always the test. Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again. Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.

It strikes me that there are few better symbols of the rudimentary challenges of life than “the panicky midstream”.

Deep breath.

Look forward.


(Read the full text of this Seamus Heaney commencement speech here)

Would you like to receive my thoughts via email? As part of the Life Well Lived Project, I send out a bulletin of the stuff I’ve thought about, read, watched, enjoyed, experienced or pondered every weekend, and one longer essay (usually on the first Friday of every month). I also try to write regular shorter blogs (such as this one) on weekdays. You can sign up to receive them here.


Concrete and plastic

There is virtually no end to man’s ingenuity. In the past 100 years, science and technology has taken us far into space, has brought every place in the world so close that almost everywhere can be reached within 24 hours or so, has fashioned communications tools that allow ideas to spread almost at the speed of light.

Concrete and plastic are two such inventions that have, literally, changed the world, have transformed our experience of the world.

The first concrete high-rise building was constructed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1904, before perhaps the most recognisable concrete structure, the Hoover Dam, was built in the mid-1930s.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, the development of synthetic plastics — among them polystyrene, polyethylene, polyester, and the trade name Nylon — overhauled virtually everything about the world we live in.

This blog not about the environmental effects of these constructs. (For that, see “Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth” (Guardian)”,  and “We Made Plastic. We Depend On It. Now We’re Drowning In It.” (National Geographic))

This blog is about the barrier they present to human groundedness.

Being grounded is, I suggest, a core ingredient in human happiness.

From the benefits of plant-based food to green exercise (defined as exercising in natural environment) to James Lovelock’s controversial / compelling Gaia hypothesis to the simple merits of just going barefoot on bare ground, a connection with the ground beneath us is, I firmly believe, fundamental to restoring calm, finding peace of mind and ultimately living a happy life.

For so many of us, particularly in the increasingly urbanised, commuter-belt world of western civilisation, a connection with the ground beneath us is less common and more precious than it’s ever been.

A quick walk in a city park at lunchtime is much better than nothing, but it’s no comparison to three hours in the wilderness at the weekend.

Our time outdoors, our stolen evenings on the beach at sunset, our weekend trip to a precariously underfunded national park — often we treat all this as a luxury, a nice moment after the essential parts of our days and weeks are taken care of.

But what if we choose instead to look at these moments not as occasional luxuries but as some of the most essential moments in our lives, and all the other day to day responsibilities can slot in around them?

Time spent outdoors, away from the concrete and plastic and exposed to the ground beneath our feet, is a small investment we can cash in for the rest of our lives.

Would you like to receive my thoughts via email? As part of the Life Well Lived Project, I send out a bulletin of the stuff I’ve thought about, read, watched, enjoyed, experienced or pondered every weekend, and one longer essay (usually on the first Friday of every month). I also try to write regular shorter blogs (such as this one) on weekdays. You can sign up to receive them here.

Your definition of normal

“Getting back to normal” is a common refrain in the postscript to Christmas and New Year, as the warm indulgences of midwinter recede and we find our way to return to some routine.

Getting back to normal, though, begs the question: what’s normal? Who’s defining it?

What’s seen as normal is influenced by expectations. Normal clusters around the average.

You never, ever want to aim too low, but aim too high, and you risk being the tallest tree catches the wind.

So normal is somewhere around the average. Normal is everyday respectability.

If everyday respectability is a leap forward, it may well be something to aim for. If that’s the case, go for it and grab it with both hands.

If, however, you’ve already found your way to everyday respectability and you’re wondering whether you’re capable of more, it’s virtually certain you are.

Your normal, then, is your decision.

Every day you and I can choose a new normal for ourselves. Set a new baseline. Strive higher, reach, try to go further.

And every step of the way taking care to know and fully accept who I am, because there are at least two ways this goes (and knowing the difference between these two takes months or even years of regular reflection):

  1. If I’m striving higher just to be accepted by others, then my striving is sure to bring hard lessons
  2. If I’m striving higher because that is who I am and how I’m built, then it makes no sense to accept someone else’s definition of what’s normal

When it comes to any part of our lives, this time of year is as good a time as any to set our new definition of normal.

The Money Series, #2: On The Compulsion to Spend Money

It’s an endlessly fascinating thing: the compulsion to spend money.

Last week, as I sat down and played a repeat of The Tommy Tiernan Show from RTÉ television recently (a friend had recommended I tune in for the Joe Brolly interview), I found the concept of money, and the compulsion to spend it, ebb and flow into my mind several times in half an hour or so.

Money is an emotional construct. Or at least, for many of us, money has become almost indelibly and all but inextricably linked with our emotions. When we have money, our emotions are joyful. When money is in short supply, or we have none at all, the emotions can be bleak: anger, bitterness, despair, depression.

Money itself is, of course, inanimate. The emotions arise from our relationship to it, the feelings coming from what money brings to our lives. If our relationship with money is mature, money can bring freedom, peace of mind, opportunity.

If our relationship with money is under-developed, however, money brings only fleeting feelings of joy, often quickly replaced by regret or guilt or shame.

Even these fleeting moments of joy that come from spending money on something can be utterly compelling.

While watching the Tiernan show, (the show is worth catching: Tiernan doesn’t know who his guest is until they walk into the studio, and while most of the interviews here will only be of particular interest to Irish audiences, the concept of interviewing without pre-planning and preparation allows the conversations to develop in natural and human ways) in almost every case that money arose in my mind, the primary sensation was the feeling associated with spending it impulsively.

It was money as a salve for a creeping feeling of ineptness, a balm for the sense of emptiness that threatened to grow up around me and suck me down. (I’ve got to know these feelings well. I’m fortunate to be able to recognise them now for what they are, as something that must be witnessed and allowed to pass on and through; if I respond to it, the response can send me into an eddy, and from there the only direction is down and under.)

Although I often don’t succeed, I try to console myself with these two statements:

  1. The feeling of ineptness is, I believe, a basic human condition. The state of thinking oneself “not good enough” is something many people deal with, and arises more from feelings than facts. Do I feel inept? Often. Am I inept? No. Without exception, I can improve in everything I do — from writing to being a father and husband, to running a business to running a half-marathon to learning leadership skills to the craft of negotiation. My skills might be lacking, but I myself am not inept. Being inept is a choice of perspective.
  2. The sense of emptiness is something I must channel and challenge. What is the base reason for the sense of emptiness that occasionally inveigles its way into my day? Whether it’s a disconnection from what’s meaningful that I can rebuild, or inactivity and rumination when I just need to make a start. The five-second, five-minute rule is helpful here. Five seconds: Count backwards from five and get moving. Five minutes: Give whatever I’m moving on at least five minutes. If after that I am still pushing water up a hill, then it’s okay to stop for a while. From my experience of the five-second five-minute rule, it is rare that I stop after those five minutes. For the most part, just starting was the most important thing.

While watching Tommy Tiernan’s interviews, money flickered into my brain multiple times:

  • With Joanne O’Riordan, a sports journalist with Tetra-amelia syndrome, a congenital disorder which meant she was born without any limbs, Tiernan asked her about the cost of her wheelchair and other equipment. (She joked that she saves lots of money on shoes and gloves. Tiernan, quick as a tack, responded that she probably has loads of hats…) Maybe this immediate reference to money caused the infestation that was to follow.
  • With Joe Brolly, a Gaelic football analyst, former footballer and practising barrister, I found my mind defaulting to thoughts of Brolly’s livelihood. A freelance barrister, he says he’s not duty-bound to anyone apart from the clients he chooses to defend. I found thoughts popping into my head. “Is it very expensive to have him in your corner in court?” “How much does he get paid for a Sunday afternoon in a TV studio?”
  • With Moya Brennan, the Clannad singer who hails from west Donegal, a part of Ireland I know well, I was rapt by her a capella renditions of two songs (an old Irish air about the Gweebarra river in Donegal, and “Theme from Harry’s Game”, another Irish language song which became the hit that catapulted Clannad to global fame), I had my phone in my hand to check the ticket price for their Belfast concert in a few weeks’ time and was already calculating in my mind the exchange rate to purchase them.
  • Mick Flannery closed out the show with a beautiful rendition of his new song “Come Find Me”, and almost of their own accord my hands again had my phone screen on, thumbing to his website to see whether his new album was available in vinyl (a retro record-player arrived in the house as a Christmas present…)

Where does this come compulsion to spend money from?

Is it the dangerous combination of a mind already susceptible to distraction and the unprecedented convenience of answering that tendency via the phone in my pocket?

Is it mere habit?

Or could it be coming from something deeper or more serious?

Could it instead be that there’s something going on in my mind and in my life that makes me so uncomfortable with being with myself that I’m compelled not just towards distraction, but past it, something unsettling that urges me forward to spend money on impulse?

That the very act of spending the money — that five-second high, and not, somewhat mysteriously, on the object or experience that I spend the money on — will fill the cracks that are appearing for now, will manage to paper them over for the time being.

This promise — that the act of spending money will momentarily fill the cracks — does not occur when the spending comes with careful planning, consideration, budgeting, saving.

No, instead it’s an impulse. An impulse that promises an instant injection of dopamine to the veins.

It’s an impulse that must be held at bay.

It’s the same impulse, I think, that starts the tumble towards addiction. The impulse to spend money can be the same as the impulse to gamble, the impulse to drink, the impulse to take drugs. It’s an impulse to take a short-term high irrespective of the longer term pain. (Gabor Mate, the great doctor and specialist in addiction treatment, defines addiction as “any behaviour that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in, but suffers negative consequences as a result of and can’t give up”.)

The compulsion to spend money, and putting a shape on the beast

However I am to hold these impulses at bay, hold them at bay I must.

This, here, right now — the act of writing through the discomfort of this impulse — helps in ways I find it difficult to convey. This act of writing is not done primarily so that what I write is read. (Although I’m very pleased and humbled that you are here, reading.) This act of writing is, primarily, an exercise in exploration and understanding. This act of writing helps me to recognise the foe I’m dealing with: it throws a handful of magic dust at the undefined, unseen beast before me and gives it a shape that I can deal with. I might not like it, but much better the devil you know, and all that. So much of our fear is the unknown undergrowth around the path, and not the path itself.

Writing helps me comprehend, but if comprehension right now is still too big a leap — and the journey of self-knowledge is lifelong, with mountains to climb and pitfalls to plot a way past, so comprehension can be fiendishly difficult to even attempt, never mind fully grasp — then finding any way to wait out the compulsion, without inflicting lasting damage, is a good thing.

For me, walking helps. Music helps. Cooking helps. Reading the right book or watching the right movie helps. Doing anything even remotely creative or productive helps.

My phone screen usually doesn’t help. Ruminating doesn’t help.

Staying in bed usually doesn’t help, apart from the very bad days when it’s the one thing I need to prevent an act of self-destruction and I must save myself. Staying in bed a while might save me from myself, but I know that there are quickly diminishing returns from this and I must recognise that point and stop myself before I reach it.

Life isn’t easy.

But I fear we make it harder for ourselves by short-term balms which rarely cure the long-term pain and often makes the long-term pain worse.

Life isn’t easy, but scattered amongst the inevitable hardships there are moments of real transcendent beauty, if we can keep ourselves alive and open to experiencing them.

Life isn’t easy, but it’s all we’ve got, and if we can keep going long enough, and resist the almost endless and often daily opportunities for self-destruction, we can in the end paint something arresting onto its vast blank canvas.

Blue Monday and a possible antidote to winter downers

This week we have Blue Monday, apparently.

The most downbeat day of the year: A day when the warmth of the holiday festivities has receded, when there’s a stark realisation that there’s still a couple of weeks left of January, when the January pay has yet to arrive in the account and the financial indulgences of Christmas has forced the tightening of multiple belts. And it’s Monday, that bleakest day of the week.

Like lots of things, Blue Monday was invented by marketers.

There’s a short chapter in Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, titled “Resistance and Self-Medication”, that includes the line:

I once worked as a writer for a big New York ad agency. Our boss used to tell us: Invent a disease. Come up with the disease, he said, and we can sell the cure.

Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases. They’re marketing ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did.

Blue Monday is the same.

It was first coined, it’s said, by travel agency Sky Travel in 2005 as a marketing ploy to sell holidays in January.

Here’s a catchy graphic from Posability. (The key line: An exercise in complete pseudoscience.)

The Blue Monday equation


So Blue Monday is made up.

But the feelings that can come with this time of year, the winter blues, can be extra real.

For those of us bound to jobs that don’t inspire us or are disconnected from any meaning beyond next week’s pay-check, the fear of Monday mornings is real.

For those of us who found ourselves over-indulging over the holidays, the effects — on our bodies, our minds and our bank balances — is real.

For those of us in the northern and western hemispheres, the sun rises late and sets early, and even on its brightest days it lacks warmth.

So it may not just be on Mondays, and blue might be an overused cliché for downbeat, but this experience is as real as can be for many of us, perhaps millions of us.

Is there any antidote?

There is.

To get better. To understand ourselves better. To wrestle with our worldview until we can build the behaviour and habit change we aspire to build.  To move slower at this time of year, as moving slower now might in the long march of time achieve more.

That process of self-knowledge and self-awareness and self-expression is step by step, minute by minute, day by day, every day for the rest of your life.

The sun will rise a moment earlier tomorrow, and set a moment later, and carry a fraction more warmth, and before long there will be snowdrops, and then daffodils, and then tulips. The world turns and transforms, and we turn and transform with it.

Anne Frank in her diary wrote:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Improving the world starts with improving you. And it can start right now, without waiting a single moment more, by opening yourself to the possibility of seeing things differently.

Would you like to receive my thoughts via email? As part of the Life Well Lived Project, I send out a bulletin of the stuff I’ve thought about, read, watched, enjoyed, experienced or pondered every weekend, and one longer essay (usually on the first Friday of every month). I also try to write regular shorter blogs (such as this one) on weekdays. You can sign up to receive them here.