Episode 33: Designing a purposeful life, the uncertainty of what’s to come and how to futurize yourself, with body-centred stress coach and futurologist Tom Meyers

Two questions about role models

Something interesting happened in Irish sport at the weekend.

Sam Bennett, the sprint specialist pro cyclist, won the Green jersey at the Tour de France, capping off his sensational performance over the past three weeks by winning the iconic final stage on the Champs-Élysées.

Bennett became the first Irish winner of the Green jersey — which is awarded for the most points, and often goes to a powerful all-rounder or a sprinter who collects a lot of points in the flatter, faster stages, away from the torture of the mountains — since Sean Kelly in 1989.

But the most interesting thing is this:

Both Sam Bennett and Sean Kelly come from Carrick-on-Suir.

Now here are a few things to know about Carrick-on-Suir.

  1. It has a population (according to the most recent census in 2016) of about 5,800 people.
  2. That makes it just the fourth largest town in County Tipperary in the south of the country (Clonmel, Thurles and Nenagh are all larger)
  3. County Tipperary is just the 12th most populous county in Ireland, despite being one of the largest counties by size

It is all but impossible for a tiny town such as this to produce two elite level pro cyclists who are not blood related.

So what role does role models play in our success?

How much of Sam Bennett’s success down to the fact that he’s followed in the footsteps of a hero from his home town?

Would Bennett have believed success in pro cycling was possible if he’d grown up anywhere else in Ireland?

These questions are all but unanswerable. They can’t be set down in a spreadsheet. They’re ephemeral, perhaps even a little spiritual.

It could just be a massive coincidence.

But true coincidences are rare.

When a coincidence happens, it can be a good thing to look hard for cause and effect.

We have no way of knowing how influential the torch held by Sean Kelly in the 1980s has been on the career of Sam Bennett.

But we know that role models are vital.

This circle of influence, which can be beautiful and can be corrosive, goes on indefinitely. I follow in the footsteps of those who went before me. Those who come after me will follow in mine.

Every new day we have these questions to answer.

What kind of role model do I want to follow?

What kind of role model do I want to be?

#133: Problems and failures, and Tom Brady on hard work

One thought from me: Picking the problems

This one’s not new. Maybe there’s no such thing as originality, anyway.

But it is something I’ve been attentive to for at least the last year.

It’s the idea that there is no end to life’s problems.

If you’re lucky, today you will face a series of little problems: the milk goes sour, the electricity bill arrives, the lawnmower doesn’t start.

If you’re unlucky, today you are dealing with one or more major problems, the kind that makes all the little problems fade away.

Two things about this:

  1. If you don’t have one of the major problems, be grateful for your little problems.
  2. There is no such thing as a day without problems; the game, then, is not to try to aim for an impossible life without any problems, but to invest your thoughts and energy on getting good at dealing with the problems you face, because over a lifetime, that is perhaps the most important skill to master

One thought from someone else: Tom Brady on hard work

Tom Brady is one of my heroes, if it’s okay for a 42-year-old man to have a hero (Tom is 11 weeks older than me.)

I always admired his achievements on the field, over 20 years with the New England Patriots, when he appears in nine Super Bowls and won six and set all sorts of records for longevity and achievement.

He became the greatest of all time, without much debate, even though 198 players were picked ahead of them in that NFL Draft all those years ago…

The Tom vs Time documentary is well worth seeking out, and his recent interview on the Armchair Expert podcast with Dax Shepard was full of things to contemplate.

For example, on hard work:

Inherently we’re taught that hard work is going to get you to where you want to go.

If you work out once a day, then working out twice a day is better.

My view of that is that if you’re working hard at the wrong things you’re getting better at getting worse.

How to know we’re working at the right things? We don’t, not for certain, but regular reflection helps us get closer to the mark.

The full interview with Tom Brady is available on the Armchair Expert podcast here

A question for you

List out some things in life that you’ve made a habit of seeing as failures.

Now, ask yourself this.

How can I view these instead as successes, or seeds of success?

 

You are not alone

You’re not alone, and you’re never alone.

You might feel alone, isolated, removed from other people.

That was true for many for several years as part of the increased digitalisation of life, where we are more “connected” than ever before, yet at the same time more disconnected from those with whom we share time and space.

That is even more true after six months or more of a pandemic, where we are constantly reminded to put distance between ourselves and others.

But you are not alone, and you’re never alone.

Take this short blog, for example.

This is posted to my website each day and goes out automatically to those who signed up to receive it by email.

The email goes out to people all over the world, including:

  • Indiana, Texas, California, Georgia, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington DC and Washington State, USA
  • Ontario, Canada
  • Flanders, Belgium
  • Essex, Hampshire, London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
  • Dublin, Kildare, Limerick, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Sligo and Wexford, Ireland (where I’ve lived all my life)
  • Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • Luzon, Philippines
  • Seoul, Korea Republic
  • Pune and Bangalore, India

Thank you to everyone who receives it by email, and for the replies I receive to those emails.

I, too, am less alone, just by writing this short piece each day.

Even though it sometimes feels like it, know that you are not alone.

Know that you’re never alone.

Know that whatever life is, and whenever it is hard, community makes it better.

Your community, the one that cherishes you and values you just for who you are, is out there waiting for you.

#132: Modes of thought, a pandemic of fear and three natural ways to beat depression

One thought from me: How we might move forward amid the pandemic of fear

It’s been a strange and different year for everyone.

The pandemic of fear and anxiety has been worse in many ways than the pandemic of illness.

Covid-19 has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, and each one is a tragedy.

Alongside it, an atmosphere of fear and anxiety has exploded — fear for our survival and the survival of our loved ones, fear for our livelihoods, anxiety about the food supplies, anxiety about meeting people.

The fear and the anxiety can easily, over time or in a moment, tip over into aggression and hate and violence.

Technology’s promise to connect us had already left us more disconnected (from nature, from each other, from ourselves) than we’d ever been.

The reality of living through the Covid pandemic has further disconnected us, fragmenting us into fearful individuals.

Some well-meaning advice during this time has been to “Behave as if you already have the virus”. And if we do so we become more disconnected than ever, in a perpetuating cycle that drives wedges between us all that we might never be able to bridge.

It’s tempting for some to cry conspiracy theories — the outcome of the past few months, with limited rights on gatherings, heavy restrictions on travel, and the quick move to face coverings as mandatory, could easily be taken out of the playbook of the millennia-old military and rulership strategy of “Divide and Conquer”.

Definition via Wikipedia:

gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy.

The use of this technique is meant to empower the sovereign to control subjects, populations, or factions of different interests, who collectively might be able to oppose his rule.

Niccolò Machiavelli, in Book VI of The Art of War (1521): A Captain should endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy … this act should be achieved either by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces, and, because of this, become weaker.

Are we being controlled? Or are we good citizens, doing what’s necessary?

Are we more suspicious of each other, and everyone, and if so, are we weaker as a result?

A few things come to mind:

  • There is no such thing as simple explanations.
  • Government is not all good, or all evil.
  • Conspiracy theories are, the overwhelming majority of the time, just theories.
  • What happens in practice is a complex soup with millions of ingredients. Government policy may in some cases be as detached from practical reality (however we define reality) as conspiracy theories are.

What should we do?

As always, our most powerful asset is how we think.
 
Our thoughts influence our feelings, and our feelings influence our actions, and our actions influence our outcomes.
 
The best we can do, maybe, is to think about the way things work, and our place in the way things work, and how we can influence things.
 
We are more powerful than we might ever know. That power starts with how we think.
 
By thinking about how we think, we might notice the feelings and emotions that lie behind how we act.
 
That is a powerful first step.
 
When we act from a place of love and compassion instead of fear and anxiety, we bolster ourselves against the worst things in the world.
And we lay the foundations, little by little by little, to make things better: for ourselves, for the people we love, for our communities, and for the world.
 
We can only change the world if first we change ourselves.

One thought from someone else: Ways to naturally beat depression

Marisa Peer is a speaker,  trainer, author and practitioner of Rapid Transformational Therapy. She has nearly three decades of experience as a therapist and has been named Best British Therapist by Men’s Health magazine

In a recent video she posted on YouTube, she said that her decades of experience of working with people with depression, she has found that there are three big causes, and that if you know what they are you will be better equipped to get over depression.

Number 1: Depression is caused by harsh, hurtful and critical ways that you say to yourself on a daily basis.

Number 2: Failing to follow your heart’s desire.

Number 3: Being disconnected. We need people. We are tribal people living in modern bodies. In a tribe you were never alone. Now we don’t need to ever speak to people or see people. In Africa there’s intense poverty but strangely enough very little depression. The more community you have, the less depression you have.

What to do about them.

Number 1: Stop criticising yourself. Remember this. Criticism withers people’s soul. Make a commitment to stop being your own worst critic.

Number 2: It’s a myth if you haven’t made it by 35 you never will. Some of our most eminent artists and writers and performers find success later in life. It’s never, ever, ever too late to follow your heart’s desire. There’s always a way. Follow your heart’s desire. It will stop depression in its tracks.

Number 3: Remember connection is vital to your soul. People need people. You can find a tribe.

Lots more detail on these, including lots of sage advice about antidepressant medication, in this 11-minute video by Marisa Peer.

A question for you

How are you thinking about things right now? In what ways are your thoughts and your mode of thinking influencing your feelings, actions and outcomes?

 

Learning to eye-smile

It’s a new skill of human interaction: the eye-smile.

Now we walk around in masks — most of us, much of the time.

With our faces covered, we find that the irreducible beauty of a smiling face is lost.

Add to it that for many people, beset by fears of illness and economic problems and threats to livelihoods and debts that never seem to go down, there often seems to be little to smile about.

But a smile is a moment of transcendent glory amid the routine hours of the everyday.

Learning to smile with our eyes, consciously bringing the feeling of smiling to our whole face and not just our mouth, might be one of the quickest things we master this year, for the biggest benefit.

A smile goes a long way.

A few words about gratitude, and why we should say it when we feel it

When I was 15 or 16, and a thoughtless idiot teenager trying to be the big man, I said something cutting about my uncle within his earshot, and in front of someone else.

My uncle was a quiet man. He was unmarried and the only one in his family not in a relationship.

He was in the gun club, and walked his gun dogs, Tara and Frau and a couple of others over time whose names I forget now, along the little river at the bottom of the field and collected golf balls that were shanked out of bounds off the Royal Tara’s 12th tee on the other bank.

He collected the balls and gave them to us, his nieces and nephews, to sell them to a shop in town for 10p a ball, or to some of his friends who were golfers.

He took solace in his dogs, and his walking, and the gun club, and in the few pints of Guinness he drank most nights.

Because he was quiet, because he was in no relationship, and because he walked everywhere (everyone stopped on the road to give him a lift to wherever he was going), maybe we underestimated him.

Whatever it was, when I was 15 or 16 I thought nothing of disrespecting him that day.

He pulled me up on it.

He was angry, more than I’d ever seen him, but he looked me in the eye, and he was measured in what he said.

I hated it, but I got the message.

Years later, he got married and moved away, and I worked not far from where he lived and drove out to visit him occasionally.

One sunny day he showed me his polytunnel, where he spent much of his free time, and we walked through the flowers in the garden, and we chatted about the bees.

I’ve thanked him in my head for years, but I don’t think he ever knew how I felt about the day he showed me what a firm and positive role model looked like and felt like.

Later he got sick, an aggressive form of cancer, and there was no coming back from it.

He died in 2006. He was 54.

Owen, thank you. I’m sorry I never said it when you were here.

The human condition: an everyday challenge

There is an everyday challenge.

The screenwriter and novelist Steven Pressfield, in his guide for a creative life,  The War of Art, calls it Resistance, with a capital ‘R’, and Resistance rises every day.

Fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.

Robert Browning, the 19th century English poet, has several thought-provoking line in his long-ish poem “Andrea del Sarto”, a dramatic monologue inspired by the Renaissance painter.

For one:

I do what many dream of, all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing.

And another (my italics):

Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

We might call it the human condition.

An endless striving, pressing forward, fear of idleness or nothingness or oblivion, moving, moving, doing, doing, doing.

All endless, until one day, shockingly, it ends, with all the unfinished business piling up unless you or I find a way to settle things satisfactorily before we go (and that is always hard to do so, because it means actively thinking about removing oneself from the world, even in our imagination).

It is a daily occurrence, for all of us.

Only a few of us, perhaps, are aware of it. (Awareness makes it no easier at the start; it may well make it harder in the early days before we build up the mental muscle to deal with it effectively, and that can take years or decades or a lifetime.)

The rest of us, those of us who are unaware and unawakened, go through each day applying whatever balm we can find for the pain that rises just below our consciousness: shopping, gambling, eating, drinking, pornography, extramarital affairs, scrolling scrolling scrolling down social media feeds — anything to feel even a fleeting moment of pleasure or distraction or an intense momentary feeling that covers over the pain for a little while.

Awakening — whether it’s into a new morning, or into the fullness of being human — often brings with it a dull throb of pain, but there is glory in the pain too, for you are here for one more day, and today you can do some good for someone, and that is maybe the best we can hope to do.

 

#131: The mind-body connection, and Singaporean thoughts on self-reliance

One thought from me: Bridging the gap between mind and body

For many years there was a convincing school of thought that said the mind and the body were entirely separate things. Rene Descartes, a 17th century French scientist and philosopher, was the first to present the concept of “dualism”, where the mind and body might be considered to be distinct and separate.

The idea was not a new one, even then. For millennia philosophers have considered the mind and the body as part of an ongoing and still far from finished search for the meaning of life.

But in the context of health, the idea of a disconnect between mind and body seems ludicrous to anyone who has experienced a breakthrough in mental health by first making physical improvements.

Often, the advice, “Exercise more”, falls flat and seems daunting and inconsiderate, especially when one is locked in a spiral of negative thoughts, which bring about a two-way connection to the body, and ultimately make it difficult to get out of bed and think about the day, never mind put on runners and take a spin down the road.

But however we need to do it, we need to realise fully and finally the tight bond between the physical body and what goes on in our minds.

Your body is more powerful than your mind will ever know. Your body (and therefore your mind) is stronger already than you think, and it has the capacity for additional strength in the future that seems unthinkable now.

Whatever physical improvements you make — to the food you eat, or the rest you take, or the exercise time you create — the impact on your mind will be even more pronounced.

Because the mind and the body are one, an investment in one always leads to dividends in the other.

One thought from someone else: Lee Kuan Yew on the basic concept of civilisation

Lee Kuan Yew was the first Prime Minister of Singapore, serving for over 30 years until 1990. He died in 2015.

Henry Kissinger, the American political and military strategist and Presidential adviser, once said that it is one of the paradoxes of history that great leaders are sometimes the leaders of tiny countries, and great countries sometimes have the most ineffective leaders.

He was referring to Lee Kuan Yew.

I liked this passage from a 1994 interview with Lee, in which he talks about a Chinese idea of self-reliance as a more powerful and more enduring form of being in the world than reliance on government.

He talks about it in the context of single mothers and the part the government plays, which is no doubt a provocative subject, but it is interesting for me to read his perspective, and consider whether it’s still relevant almost three decades on. [Let me say that I’m reading this from the male perspective, and the fundamental requirement, as I see it, for a man to accept the consequences of his actions and do what he needs to do, within all accepted laws and mores, to provide for and nourish his family and community. It is not that the family unit is sacrosanct to all provocations, or should ever be immune to a man’s general misbehaviour outside the home and pent-up fury and aggression inside it. It is that men should be expected to behave better, lead better, be better in fulfilling our roles and responsibilities than many of us routinely are.]

Here’s Lee Kuan Yew’s view on the basic concept of civilisation, as he sees it, as told in a long interview with Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs in 1994:

In the West, especially after World War II, the government came to be seen as so successful that it could fulfil all the obligations that in less modern societies are fulfilled by the family. The approach encouraged alternative families, single mothers for instance, believing that government could provide the support to make up for the absent father. This is a bold, Huxleyan view of life, but one from which I as an East Asian shy away. I would be afraid to experiment with it. I’m not sure what the consequences are, and I don’t like the consequences that I see in the West.

You will find this view widely shared in East Asia. It’s not that we don’t have single mothers here. We are also caught in the same social problems of change when we educate our women and they become independent financially and no longer need to put up with unhappy marriages. But there is grave disquiet when we break away from tested norms, and the tested norm is the family unit. It is the building brick of society.

There is a little Chinese aphorism which encapsulates this idea: Xiushen qijia zhiguo pingtianxia.

Xiushen means look after yourself, cultivate yourself, do everything to make yourself useful;
Qijia, look after the family;
Zhiguo, look after your country;
Pingtianxia, all is peaceful under heaven.

We have a whole people immersed on these beliefs … It is the basic concept of our civilisation. Governments will come, governments will go, but this endures. We start with self-reliance. In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.

A question for you

Is there an area in your life where you are too reliant on someone or something else? What could you do to take some small steps towards carving out some independence and self-reliance away from that dependency?

 


Quick Magnificent Irrelevance update…

I’m grateful to have had some wonderful encouragement on this new project, a new publication to showcase new and original sportswriting from around the world.

One or two people have been surprised by the new direction, so it started me thinking: what has this project got in common with writing about the self, mental health, personal development, self-reliance and happiness here in these emails and on the blog these past couple of years?

The main thing, I think, is the glory of humanity.

Your life is a unique, one-time event in the great endless expanse of history. There has never been anyone else just like you, with your set of genes and thoughts and experiences and skills and talents and desires.

That is what Magnificent Irrelevance is, in the sphere of sports. It is not, and never will be, about who won or who lost. It will always be about the people and their stories, and sports, everywhere from cricket in Pakistan to under-14 athletics to the multi-million world of the NBA finals, offers a limitless array of stories of will and endurance and adversity just waiting to be told.

The writers will tell those stories, and that’s what I hope to bring with Magnificent Irrelevance over the next few months and years. You can sign up to follow along with the weekly project update here, listen to a 4-minute intro episode of a new related podcast “The Sportswriter’s Life” on Spotify here.

If this isn’t for you, but you know someone who loves sports and loves stories, please feel free to share the website with them.

Here’s the new podcast artwork, provided by the wonderfully talented designer and illustrator Dmitry Klimakov.

The Sportswriter's Life Podcast | Magnificent Irrelevance | Shane Breslin

 

Silent wisdom

Language is a beautiful thing, used in beautiful ways, but for many of the most important things, language is inefficient.

We become inarticulate, lost for words, when we are faced with the biggest moments in life, those split seconds when the universe reveals itself through a shaft of light or a fleeting moment of wonder.

In those moments it is common to say we are speechless.

Wisdom is one of those things that’s often better left silent.

We know wisdom when we see it, we know the wise when we see them, by the way they move and the aura they hold.

Wisdom is often felt and understood rather than communicated through language.