A curation of thoughts

From what is unknown to how unseen forces shape us, the need for aloneneness or misconceptions positive thinking, The Underneathness challenges beliefs and brings fresh perspectives intended to help you live a more deeply connected life.

This is a curation of those pieces that my readers have loved most.

The Underneathness – a curation of thoughts


Let’s stop pretending we know everything

We often fail to notice things that we are not expecting. Dr Lisa Randall, Physicist


Can we please stop pretending we have the answers or are on a knowledge home run where the main issues are settled with only scraps to be tidied up?

The reality is –

  1. We hardly know anything
  2. What we think we know changes constantly, often in astounding ways
  3. The best method we have for discovering facts, scientific method, is limited
  4. Science is not reality, but provides models of reality
  5. Science is robust not unequivocal, it can produce wrong answers that are useful and seemingly right answers that are wrong
  6. What is real varies between systems, people and within ourselves
  7. We cannot even conceive of what is yet to be asked, making imagination as important as science for progress.

To claim to know for certain, in particular about issues that do not yield to testing, is unscientific and given history, likely unwise.


  1. We hardly know anything



All that is visible

All that is visible clings to the invisible,
the audible to the inaudible,
the tangible to the intangible,
Perhaps the thinkable to the unthinkable.

Lama Anagarika Govinda


You can’t withstand your environment you’re a part of it

I am I plus my circumstances. Jose Ortega y Gasset

While it’s true that the way we perceive and interpret events impacts how we experience them, it’s only part of the story.

Too much emphasis has been placed on our ability to withstand the environment as if it were somehow separate from us.

Instead, we are a continuation of our environment, visible and invisible forces within it profoundly impact how we behave.

The self

Of course, how people see and construe things differs.

We know that perception is influenced by expectations and unconscious biases. Prejudices we may not be aware of profoundly impact what we pay attention to and recall.



We are as we think & how we’re treated +

We are as we think

We’re told we are as we think.

Perception can have a dramatic impact on wellbeing but the reality is far more complex.

We are as we are treated

Mostly we believe we are as we are treated.

When we’re treated well, we presume that who we are and what we do is okay and can withstand a bit of ebb and flow.

But when we’re treated badly we worry that we caused it, deserve it or even worse – are fundamentally bad.

This is particularly true for those who are mistreated young and do not understand that adults are flawed.

Abusers know this intuitively and depend on it.



We are shaped by the unseen

You see, the strangeness of my case is that now I no longer fear the invisible, I’m terrified by reality. Jean Lorrain

We assume our reality –

  1. Is reality
  2. Is right.

But we have access to only the tiniest amount of information that’s out there, whether in the electromagnetic spectrum or conscious brain.

This means that our reality –

  1. Is a reality (one of many)
  2. Is shaped by limited information.

Despite this, we are happy to stake a claim to being right and dismiss others’ experiences as inferior or wrong.

It does a lot of damage. People go to war over it.

Instead, being open to different realities enables us to pool information, articulate a view and consider other options without needing to narrow every discussion down to ‘a winner’.



Self-love is overrated 

How many times have you heard that you have to love yourself?

Worse, that you have to learn to love yourself first, as if without this magical substructure, little else is possible.

Some stretch the friendship further, demanding you love yourself unconditionally.

Unconditionally? Is that even possible, desirable?

For example, in the middle of a mess that I’ve made by not acting soon enough, which upends my world but also those who depend on me for whatever reasons (stability, security) – should I love myself? Not necessarily. I can resent myself. I can resent myself and care. I can resent myself and still rebuild.

What about the wo/man who deliberately lies and cheats, irrespective of their rationalisations (I deserved it, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a fling, s/he’ll never know)? Do we think love, or self-censure is in order?

Or the psychopath slowly and deliberately executing a colleague’s fall? Should they love themselves? No. Get thee to a nunnery, they should admonish themselves. Get help. Go.

To those who love themselves I would like to say ‘wow how great’ but I don’t know if it is. I need more information.



Pure rationality is a myth we should not aspire to

I think it would be very foolish not to take the irrational seriously. Jeanette Winterson


Be rational, people say as if –

  1. It’s (fully) possible
  2. The counterpart is unhealthy.

In reality –

  1. We all behave on a continuum from rational to irrational
  2. Those who put irrationality down are just as susceptible to it as those they criticise
  3. Knowing we are irrational will not stop us being irrational
  4. Rationality is not good or bad, nor is irrationality.

None of this absolves us from responsibility for our decisions or suggests we can’t improve awareness or emotional IQ. But it does challenge the idea that rationality is an endpoint or that rational thinking leads to rational or desirable behaviour.

Why the focus on rationality?

There are many reasons we elevate rationality, including – (more…)


False hope is futile

Hope is life-affirming, a longing for the particular that gives energy to go on despite struggle and disappointment.

Hope teaches the value of persistence when there are scant results and we doubt the worth of our efforts. We learn to value the process of working towards a goal, not just reaching it.

This is not blind hope, it’s hopefulness underpinned by hard work.

Many great accomplishments have been made this way, from dismantling segregation to life-changing scientific discoveries.

False hope

But false hope is deadly. It chains us to an outcome we hope for but cannot achieve.

It locks us into an idea – of a person, job, institution – that has little bearing on reality. We are seduced by the idea of what could be, instead of what is.



The benefits & limits of attention & evidence

These seemingly contradictory, yet complementary insights may be of value –

  1. Pay no attention to what people say; but pay close attention to what people say.
  2. Focus on evidence; but don’t let evidence narrow your focus.


Pay no attention to what people say (when it contradicts what they do)

It’s easy to say – I am honest, I am good, I have values. In fact, it’s easy to say anything – just open your mouth. Doing so is a different ballgame but if you want to know who someone is, take a look.

For example –

  1. You can’t say you are loyal but have affairs, unless you have an explicit agreement with your partner that ‘loyalty’ includes having sex with other people. You can’t redefine what sex (or commitment or partnership or marriage for that matter) means for the purpose of squeezing yourself back into the loyal box. A one-night stand is still sex. An intermittent but ongoing romp with an old friend is still sex. Orchestrating a weekend away with a colleague even if both parties are married just for sex, is sex. Sex as a transaction is sex. If there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing in your mind, tell your partner so that they have information and can make an adult choice about whether they’re happy with that in their mind too. Otherwise call it what it is. Is it loyal? No it is disloyal, it is deceit. You can apply this to any quality you ascribe to yourself or others.
  2. You can’t claim to be trustworthy if on Monday you’re lobbying for better treatment of women but on Tuesday diminish working women as selfish and self-centred, argue human rights Wednesday but whip up the troops around anti-Semitism (add in any issue you like here) the next. Who is this person? No one knows. We can change our minds about what we believe over time but that’s not what chameleons are about. What else do they say that has no bearing on the way they live? Likely most things including to those who think they fall into a special, truthful category (think again). Look at what you say and ask yourself – do you live by it? If not, why say it at all?

It may seem overly obvious to say these things but it is the primary human instinct to trust other people. Most of us believe what people say about who they are and it’s hard to shake early impressions, positive or negative. This is what makes political leanings or emotional beliefs about the existence of loaded beliefs like climate change so difficult to shift.



Don’t be too quick or too slow to forgive

We’re told that it’s compassionate to forgive ourselves and other people.

It’s a great principle, sorely lacking in detail.

When, for example, is the time to forgive? And how do we do it?

By rushing to forgive we risk pushing legitimate feelings underground. On the other hand refusing to forgive is a lost opportunity for deeper connection and that we carry unnecessary pain.

People react along the continuum of fast to slow depending on who they are and the situation, some things have a greater impact than others.

But at the extremes are:

  • Those who never forgive.
  • Those who forgive instantaneously.



The idea that venting anger helps is a myth

You may feel better after you’ve vented your anger but there’s little point –

  1. Venting does not diminish anger
  2. The feeling intensifies
  3. You create fresh damage to those you lash out at.

Why do we do it?

Angry people have a strong sense of entitlement about how the world should look and others should act. They are poor self-regulators who attribute the source of discomfort outside themselves. Poor self-regulation means they do not act in the long-term consistent with values.

Their bravado may appear as strength in particular when it tilts towards aggression but it masks weak self-control. When things don’t go their way they lash out believing their anger is a justified reaction to an unfair world.

“If they hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t be angry.” (They genuinely believe this.)

The surge of anger provides ‘a shot of adrenaline-driven energy’ that has amphetamine and analgesic effects, providing a sense of power that also numbs the pain. That sense of relief is called catharsis but it’s temporary and illusory.


5 powerful ways to work through fear

Fear is a powerful, primal emotion that causes our brain to release chemicals that help us stay and fight off danger or get away from it as fast as possible.

We don’t sit down and think about what to do when that instinct is triggered, we react automatically.

This is great for getting us out of harm’s way but when we can’t switch it off it can feel debilitating.

This happens for many reasons:

  1. The incident triggers post-traumatic stress (we can’t control this).
  2. The source of fear does not disappear (the bully at home or work stays put).
  3. We experience related anxieties day after day that aren’t dramatic in isolation but add up (as in chronic stress).

Key to dealing with any of these is getting clear about what’s going on, what’s not and what (if anything) we’re going to do about it.

 Not all fears are the same



Demanding builds you up but picky breaks you down

There’s a fine line between being demanding and picky. One builds, the other breaks you down.

 Demanding can bring out the best in us.

Let’s say you’re upset that the boss thinks a report you’ve slaved over needs work. But you talk it through and see you’ve made wrong assumptions or left things out and there are areas that can be strengthened. Their insights help. You’ve learned and that knowledge can be incorporated into future work. This is a constructive process and creates growth.

Picky is a different beast. It’s not interested in good and bad, what worked and did not. There’s one slit in the filter and it’s for error. Consequently, what’s right or has potential is filtered out; but the misses are amplified.

Here are other ways to describe these types: nitpicking, fault-finding, carping, critical, negative.

The picky can be parents, partners, colleagues, friends, ourselves. What they have in common is that no matter how hard you try or what you accomplish it is never enough. The subtext of course is that: nor are you.


Why rebellion can look just like conformity

It’s absurd to me that someone would vote a certain way because their parents did; but no less that they would only vote contrary to them (extrapolate broadly).

When the impetus for decision-making is based on pushing against something for the sake of it, conformity and rebellion look remarkably alike.

This pattern works its way out differently – parents give way to friends, bosses, or even ideas but we still have:

  1. The desire to differentiate ourselves; and
  2. The desire to belong.

Although this may be in sharper focus during certain developmental phases (the famed teenage years) the process continues through life.

It goes without saying that something isn’t true just because someone tells us it is, even if we love and respect that person. This is regardless of whether it’s a fact or set of values.


Busy is the new lazy

We’re all so busy; what we’re doing is very important too.

Strange then that ours is neither a culture of elite productivity nor meaningfulness.

That’s because most of the busyness is a hoax.

But we’ve built an altar to it. Those who lift the lid can pay a high price for seeing things as they are. In some workplaces it’s unadvisable.

You at least, must name it for what it is.

Often being busy is little more than a distraction.

Being busy forgives just about anything.


A strong personality is not the same as strength

People often mistake domineering personalities as strong. They can be, but sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes frighteningly opposite if doggedness masks an inability to cope with differences.

When someone disagrees with them – it’s a war.

Domineering personalities are not afraid to express a view – that is refreshing. What is less refreshing is to watch them unyieldingly hammer their point till others cave in or shut down.

They are not interesting in listening, nuance or having a discussion. They have a single goal – emerging triumphant at the other end.

It doesn’t matter if they take an opposite view the next day. It’s about winning, not logic.

These personalities play the wo/man and not the ball. Someone who disagrees with them is not just wrong they’re ‘an idiot’ (put in their preferred insult). There’s no give, no concession that someone might have an insight they don’t or even just a different way into the problem.


How to accept diversity

How do we —

  1. Respect grassroots views without being held hostage to ignorance?
  2. Privilege a standpoint without slipping into elitism about whose views count?
  3. Accept the right for people to have a view if that view seems damaging?
  4. Value knowledge while accepting that what was once true we now know to be false but that creativity & scientific method matter.
  5. Become aware of, let alone challenge, personal assumptions, ideas, beliefs?

Sometimes we do so easily and at others with great difficulty.

But in relation to each of the five above we can —

  1. Accept we have prejudices we’re not aware of — desire to become more conscious — withstand the pressure to agree because it’s easier without condemning people for not sharing our views.
  2.   Place being humane above all else — drop the need to be right or better — admit how gut wrenching it feels when we’re wrong but also how humbling & human it makes us.
  3.  Say no. (“NO”)
  4.  Value knowledge without deifying it — remember that ideas predate data — value scientific method, strive for the right questions and measures but do not let the limit of current measures set the boundaries for your thinking — refuse to make experts into gods but value genuine expertise — accept the right for people to have a view, but be discerning about the quality of information behind them (not all views are equally well informed).
  5. Be insatiably curious — read constantly including from opposing views — the established and from the edges — process that through writing, painting, reflecting, talking, walking or what works for you — get external inputs without needing to accept or reject them — be willing to tolerate discomfort.


Kindness can be brutal

When you’re on the receiving end of kindness — it’s milk — a honeyed sap with associations of mothering & the cosseted dark womb.

But being kind is an altogether different experience.

It’s rising in the dark to run despite rain & icy winds while the world is sleeping.

Being kind can mean:

  • Suppressing the urge to lash out because you feel momentarily better.
  • Letting it go through to the keeper.
  • Putting your needs second, third or taking them off the table, this time.
  • Not adding fuel to the fire though you’re desperate to do so.
  • Refusing to let someone else’s feelings determine yours.
  • Sometimes, not speaking out.
  • Sometimes, not saying what you really think.
  • Appreciating a person is not just their last encounter with you.
  • Remembering the good when you don’t want to.
  • Knowing that when someone strikes at your sense of self it’s because they desperately need to affirm theirs and feeling compassion, rather than anger, for that humanness.
  • Seeing yourself in the above.
  • Admitting that you too can be unkind.

It’s not for the meek. Kindness demands vigilance, acute self-awareness and internal restraint, for which the rewards are not always obvious.

You also need to know the border at which kindness transmutes into self-abuse and not step over it.

That’s the sharper edge of the practice that means you must also know when to: (more…)

Art, creative judgement & shared human drives

Elitists put up barriers to entry to art.  They use alienating jargon to send outsiders a message that they’re not clever or worthy enough to get it. “Get it?”

But there are those who diminish art and people who love it because they don’t get it. They crumple it underfoot. Or say that it is purely subjective. “I like what I like.”

That part, about personal preference, can’t be refuted; but you can make creative judgements.

I may like blues and you pop but we can both hear when the singer is out of tune.

There is unaccomplished art. There is skilled composition & technique, intention. There is also great art that we neither like nor comprehend.




If you want to be more deeply connected, spend time alone.

That’s not a fact, underpinned by research. It’s a reflection. An anecdote. But it may have value.

If you came to me and said – I feel empty, or – as if something is missing – if you complained about feeling blocked or stagnant or that negative drama (gossip, shouting, pointing the finger) made you feel more alive – I would say: think about spending some more time alone.

That’s regardless of being an extravert, introvert, or even ambivert (think happy middle ground).

These are just personality types.

The value of being alone transcends categories. It’s a deliberate practice of not seeking someone (or something) other to fill you up. I believe it’s a deep human need, as vital as connection.


Why I choose Samuel Beckett over positive thinking, any day

I believe we can learn more about what it takes to succeed from the closing assertion of Beckett’s The Unnamable than any other motivational book

You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

This insight about the need for persistence in the face of obstacles and even despair offers no illusions about what it takes to keep going or false promises that success will be great when you get  ‘there’ (wherever that is).

This is useful advice. We should be given more of it.

Instead, we’re meant to be inspired by motivational cries and images of a positive Duracell-style achiever who stares doubt in the face and relentlessly bangs the drum; pitting the emotional equivalent of an airbrushed model against our puny efforts.

This makes us feel bad.



Values are cast as poor cousins to strategy

Values are often cast as poorer cousins to hard skills like strategy, but authentic leaders with the acute self-awareness and internal discipline required to withstand the siren song of the group are rare.

How many people do you know who can –

  1. Identify the biases they bring to the table and understand how they can be used (for good or bad)?
  2. Listen to and respect all views while recognising ideas are not equal?
  3. Bring others along but not at the cost of sound decision-making, even when that means standing alone?
  4. Encourage a style of dissent that does not veer to chaos or produce fake consent?

Coherence is so strongly associated with survival and its value so deeply embedded in management practice that we would rather deal with the future consequences of a bad decision than the discomfort of going against the group in the here and now.

This is called groupthink and it’s what happens when members of any in-group try to minimise conflict by agreeing to something without critically evaluating alternatives.Disagreement is often perceived as disloyalty, rather than as a path to better decision-making.

Groupthink has been implicated in many disasters, from the Bay of Pigs to the GFC. What has emerged in much of the research that follows these events is that many people had doubts about what was happening but did not speak out, sometimes to remain ‘in’ but also because of an understandable concern they might lose their jobs.


Cynicism is a poison

I’m not a fan of the saccharinely positive with no off-button but cynicism – that can be a poison.

The kind of cynicism I am talking about here has little to do with discernment or healthy realism; the critical thinking required to analyze information or challenge norms, which leads to better outcomes.

I am talking about the kind of person who pans everything.

A hundred great things happen during the day and the only thing the cynic reports: the train was late.

The variations are endless:

  • The boss is stupid
  • The government useless
  • The incompetent supplier stuffed up again.

Perhaps all those things are true. But so are adjacent realities like the 93 percent of times the trains ran on time or many occasions the boss had a great idea.


The importance of jealousy

We’re told that jealousy is a sin and that good people shouldn’t experience it, or if they do, that they should be able to rise above their feelings and keep it at bay.

Any wonder then that we try to suppress the discomfort when it arises or pretend it’s not there?

The problem is we still feel jealous, but add guilt and shame to the mix and don’t have any more insight on why the incident impacted us so deeply.

It’s so destructive. Instead use jealousy constructively to become more conscious. Believe me if you really want to know what you want then jealousy is a merciless guide.

Nothing slices a faster, more precise path through theoretical ideas about what you think you value to to a nameable want. And if you can bear the discomfort, what you learn will be invaluable.

Let’s work through this.



What is trust?

If I offer you my trust am I –

  • Agreeing with you?
  • Doing what you ask of me?
  • Offering robust feedback?
  • Protecting your feelings?
  • None of the above?

What is considered a sign of trust to one may appear as a betrayal to another.

We cannot define the minutia of every interaction, but without a shared understanding of what trust means it becomes another meaningless word on the annual report next to ‘integrity’ and ‘collaboration’.

And yet, because trust is vital to personal and professional life, we need to understand what it is and how to build it.

One way to understand trust is as a set of agreements about how we will behave towards one another. These agreements may be implicit or explicit and, over time, they may change.

For example, an implicit agreement is that parents feed their children. While parenting obviously requires more than this, a child’s dependency demonstrates the way in which obligations emerge by virtue of the type of relationship that exists.


The value of being curious in the modern world

If you gave me a few seconds to share what I believed could add the most to a person’s life I’d say – be curious.

What about?

Everything and everyone.

When you’re curious, every day is rich.

This doesn’t mean every day is great, that’s impossible and undesirable; but you can be up or down, relaxed, anxious, angry, sad and you’re learning, adding colour and texture, cracking open walls.

But you’ve got to pay attention. You’ve got to be awake so that you take in what you are experiencing and start making it into something, rather than being asleep to it and letting it pass you by.

Curiosity is intrinsic although the instinct can fade if it’s not encouraged or used. But it can be rekindled.

Curiosity leads to unexpected synergies, it reveals new patterns and generates startling serendipity.


‘I don’t know’. Uncertainty as a platform for growth.

When leadership is confused with the need to know everything it can lead to cultures of bluff where people feel it’s more important to give a response (including a wrong one) than acknowledge doubt.

Instead, these three simple words from a leader can establish a very different context: I don’t know.

“I don’t know” puts the focus on rigour and says many things including:

  1. Let’s not assume;
  2. We need data not anecdotes;
  3. Let’s find out.

Then why is saying it so difficult?

For one, we like to believe that certainty is possible.

This is despite knowing that many of the things we once through to be true we now know to be false (that the earth is flat or that ulcers are caused by stress, for example) and that this will most likely happen again in the future.


Why you should doubt yourself

Therefore certainty is not only something of no use but is also in fact damaging, if we value reliability. Carlo Rovelli

We seem so desperate to know things ‘for certain’.

I think there are many reasons why.

At the nice end, ‘knowing’ is an anchor that gives us a sense of ground, even if it’s illusory. We need that. It helps us navigate ambiguity and provided we’re open to reassessing ideas as more evidence emerges or as we’re impacted by experience that’s okay.

The problem is when we attach to being certain or confuse our sense of self with being right. That’s one of the more destructive sides of being human. We need to know, to be right and then: to assert that rightness.

You see it in relationships where people who loved each other wake up one day to find that they have dug trenches around that need and created a no-man’s land instead of a life between them.

Or on the contrary, when we cling to an earlier idea about the other, who or what they should be (our idea of them really) refusing to recognize that we, or they, or circumstances, have changed.



Why loyalty is not always a virtue

We think of loyalty and fidelity as virtues and they can be.

But like any qualities they can turn on you. The terms are also are frequently misapplied.

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Is this the right word for what I am dealing with?
  • To whom or what am I loyal?  

Relationships in any arena bring the complexity of these questions into sharp relief.

Many bullies at work are not exposed because victims do not come forward, often fearing retribution. This is not a phantasmagorical fear but one anchored in real life concerns for job security and even personal safety.

But it is not loyalty.

Those in abusive relationships can experience a bizarre loyalty to their persecutors. Although these dynamics are highly complex traumatic bonding is a well-documented survival technique. Many wo/men stay with abusive partners too long.


Why deferring to ‘expertise’ can be dangerous

I was recently at a workshop where a participant introduced himself by listing his Ivy League credentials; while impressive, his doctorate was in a discipline unrelated to the discussion and the act was out of context.

Notwithstanding this, many people subsequently looked to him to lead or tacitly sought his approval when speaking.

What he had done was to anchor the group around his primacy as an intellect and limit challenges to his authority before they occurred.

These sorts of dynamics are damaging for everyone involved:

  1. People who resist questioning often need to appear right. In this way the need to be right is more important than the right information. Frequently a flag for insecurity, it keeps them stuck but also prevents the healthy debate needed to get measured outcomes.
  2. By automatically deferring to others we feel disempowered and inadvertently contribute to cultures of misinformation. However, more importantly from my perspective, we fail to exercise a faculty vital for development: critical thinking.

Understanding how people use anchoring as a form of control helps us better navigate these sorts of discussions.


Why platitudes undermine your credibility

Be who you are and say what you mean. Because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. Dr Seuss

The self-awareness and leadership space is peculiarly susceptible to platitudes.

Leaders can use them without thinking, however, they can easily be perceived as content-free statements and a substitute for thinking.

Although platitudes can contain some truth, their oversimplification makes them inadequate for dealing with the complexities and real difficulties that people face.

Because platitudes have become intertwined with everyday conversation people apply them to personal and professional life, as easily to issues ranging from strategy or operations to emotional resilience.

However, sharing a bite-size banality cannot substitute for the multifaceted job of leading.


Why all-or-nothing thinking can undermine your good

I was chatting to a friend recently who told me he could no longer be bothered with people, his choice, as far as he was concerned sooner or later everyone disappointed him.

With him you’re either totally out or you’re totally in, that’s just the type of guy he is.

But I could see that he was paying a price for this all-or-nothing thinking.

His ‘absolutism’ was reflected in the shrinking of his social life to his wife, daughter and the odd precariously positioned friend but also in the narrowing of his exposure to different world views.

I also wondered, given its ubiquity as a symptom of depression, whether there was more to his glum mood than he was letting on.

For him people were right or wrong, brilliant or idiots. There was little room in between.


You are what you do

I heard a woman who doesn’t work but overtly disparages friends who aren’t able to participate in her luxurious designer-clothing-five-star-travel-restaurant lifestyle say that she was not materialistic.


Now there’s nothing wrong with enjoying material things but there’s clearly a gap here between what’s expressed and lived.

And the examples are everywhere.

A friend worked with an executive who touted himself as a mentor until it was later revealed that he set about coming on to menses and sabotaging those who refused his advances.

Spot the difference? It’s only in the details.

What these examples have in common is that they point to a gap between who people say they are and what they, in fact, do.

But it’s the latter that counts (with a caveat around intention).


Moods as a controlling device

Have you noticed how some people control others without doing or saying anything?

These emotional dictators wield emotion like a sword and then step back from the consequences.

I am not talking here about low-level sulkiness; we all get moody from time to time.

A partner or colleague upsets us and rather than either sorting it out directly, or letting it go, we do neither. We say nothing but they know in no uncertain terms it is not forgotten. While not ideal, we are all human and it’s not a problem when it’s not a pattern.

Where it becomes a problem is when it becomes a pattern.

Emotional manipulators are different from those who don’t have the skills to be direct because of their upbringing, socio-political environment or just a difference in power or position (where directness can have serious consequences). People who get shot down may also retreat to indirectness as a defence.

What distinguishes them is that they thrive on drama; where it doesn’t exist they will create it. They love the fallout from their antics because it puts them slap bang at the centre of the universe where they feel powerful and in control, and that’s just the way they want it.



Try real over ‘positive’

Like so many platitudes there is some value to: be positive.

It suggests that the way we view life impacts our experience and that is borne out by research.

Shawn Achor shows that knowing someone’s circumstances predicts as little as 10 per cent of their long-term happiness, wellbeing is largely determined by what we make of things. Achor believes that being authentically positive creates a ‘happiness advantage’ that increases intelligence and creativity.

It’s destructive when ‘be positive’ is used as a catch-all-cure-all with no bearing on the circumstances of the person who is reaching out for support, which is challenging enough for most people as it is.

Say you’re struggling with a complex project that keeps getting derailed. What you need is insight, advice, and suggestions on how you might approach it differently and instead you get: just be positive. How useless.

Chin up darling, solider on.


Turn rejection on its head – accept it

Let’s face it most of us take rejection badly.

I am no different, in that I take things personally. We know that when we first learn something, we’re usually bad at it. We also understand that we get better with practice and that it takes up to 10,000 hours if author Malcolm Gladwell is right to master a skill. (Although the psychologist on whose original work his observation was made disagrees.)

We get the theory. But it does not always translate when we most need it: at the moment of a rejection.

We get a rejection (a missed promotion, no second date, a failed business case) and it leaves us feeling awful and filled with self-doubt: we are still just not good enough.

But what if we could turn this on its head?


Disagreement is not disloyalty

It may seem counterintuitive but formal processes are not a panacea for good governance; post-mortems of Enron and WorldCom, or closer to home Centro, reinforce that these companies failed despite entrenched controls.

What leaders can learn from these high profile failures it that risk-taking is a cultural issue and that with respect to decision-making, a culture that encourages independence and debate is an asset.

Yet in many companies, disagreement continues to be seen as disloyalty.

Worse, as in the case of Enron, active collusion can be seen as a precondition for maintaining a seat at the table.

In his book Innovation Corrupted: The Origins and Legacy of Enron’s Collapse, Harvard’s Professor Malcolm Salter highlights sophisticated internal controls failed to impact the behaviour that led to Enron’s demise.



Confidence? It’s a concept

Faith and doubt both are needed – not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve. Lillian Smith

I get so frustrated when I’m struggling with something (personal or professional) and I approach someone for input and they come back with something like: just be confident.

  • Have faith in yourself
  • Clout the doubt
  • Success is can, not can’t.

The variations are endless.


However well-meaning the advice (and it usually is) these platitudes don’t help.


Don’t take it personally? (It’s personal)

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin.

One of the great self-development leaps we make that catapults us out of childhood and into being adult is when we realize we should not take things personally.


We get a rejection letter in response to the submission we sent – not personal.

In the past we used to throw ourselves on the couch, weeping and leaping to all sorts of conclusions about our self-worth (and the lack of it).


Leadership is not a position

I was talking to a friend about a situation in which he felt powerless in the face of change. He was ‘waiting’ for an outcome about his future in the volatile manufacturing sector that was making him increasingly anxious and he was struggling to stay engaged. At times, he admitted, he felt depressed.

Waiting for what I asked?
Fate? Providence? Godot?

The difficulty with waiting for something to determine what happens to you is that it makes you feel less an adult than a child.

Your ‘locus of control’ (or the extent to which you believe you impact life) is farmed out to something beyond your self rather than remaining inside.

Given the demonstrated impact of the latter on job performance and satisfaction, it’s any wonder that adults in such an environment feel debilitated.

While there’s no doubt our superiors can and do make decisions that influence our lives, what remains in hand is our response.


Why being kind is more important than being right

 A part of kindness consists in loving people more than they deserve. Joseph Joubert

This last week I have been reflecting on kindness and why there is not enough of it in the world.

While we are supposedly more open to softness and emotion, the reality is that we still privilege disconnection.

What do I mean by this?

Simply that the hard-nosed, cut off and detached can be perceived as more capable and grown up than their more sensitive peers.

Although they are rarely more capable and grown up or in fact even hard-nosed, the image is revered and therefore, reinforced.

But it’s a myth. Underneath, we are all vulnerable.

This doesn’t mean we can’t manage emotions appropriately or make difficult decisions. We navigate complexity daily.


How to stoke your genius

You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction.” De Bono, Lateral Thinking






Why you need to ‘have a dream’

“I have a dream”, this refrain, woven through Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington speech embodies the concentrated pain of his (and many) people and the deep longing for a just society.

Although a cry to free America from racial segregation, ostensibly it arouses that which in us seeks a nobler vision for humanity.

We all express that differently.

For some – it is a revolutionary cryFor others it is holding to learned and self-evident truths “that all wo/men are created equal”. It could be a sincere commitment to the Buddhist principles of good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end. The detail does not matter so much as the intention and that is progress.

Great leaders embody these ideals. Gifted with the ability to inspire those around them, they make them real. Sometimes romanticised, these leaders evoke the particular: a time, a place, the cause that pushed us forward.


How to lead with optimism through uncertain times

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertaintyJacob Bronowski.

How can you lead with optimism given these difficult times?

The legacy of global financial mismanagement and the unresolved European debt crisis mean phrases like ‘economic collapse’ are brandished about, clubbing into us the fear (or reality) of job cuts, foreclosures and other terrors.

Last year there were race riots in Britain, apocalyptic floods in Brazil and Thailand and in Tunisia a fruit seller set himself and the Arab world alight when his protest spurred the dismantling of dictatorships in Tunisia, Jordon, Egypt and Libya.

As I write the ever-ticking worldometer tells me there have been 100 million births and 43 million deaths since the new year stared and in the last 24 hours writers published over 3 million blogs, a statistic that will be outdated by the time you read this.

With such interminable disruption and the accelerating speed at which we know about it, it’s no wonder many of us feel afraid or at the very least, anxious.


Should leaders make others happy?

Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult. Warren G. Bennis

I was recently part of a discussion where it was put that people perform better uplifted and leaders were responsible for the happiness of their teams.

The underpinning philosophy: positivity activates the heart.

This did not sit well with me.

While I believe we need to be emotionally aware, to be positive all the time is inauthentic.

We go up and down, veering from anger to joy and every emotion in between and that is natural.

What we do with those emotions though, is critical.

We need to be aware that our mood impacts others (although how they respond is largely up to them) and deal with our feelings rather than taking them out on the people around us.


The need always to be right, is wrong

The need to be right is the sign of a vulgar mind. Albert Camus.

Last time I wrote about the need to value expertise, without deferring to it.

This is amongst other things because knowledge is not static and experts disagree, although often off a higher base.

And while I don’t like the way some people use their credentials as weapons to anchor others, knowledge is gold.

Specialists exist in every field; people know more or less about certain topics. Facts have weight.

And yet how frequently we argue without them.


Value expertise but don’t defer

I was at a workshop where a man introduced himself like this: when I did my doctorate at Insert Ivy League University Here.

Now there’s nothing wrong with establishing credentials in particular when they are relevant to the discussion, which in this case they were not.

What he had done was to anchor the rest of the group around his primacy as an intellect, which he certainly was. Without needing to say it directly, he had sent a signal that his views were ipso facto going to be better and to disagree with him if you dared .

Many subsequently and unconsciously looked to him to lead. Those who dared speak cast glances in his direction, tacitly seeking his approval.

This is how individually and collectively we agree to defer and give away power.

People anchor others in many ways, sometimes overtly (which makes it easier to detect) but often subtly.


Disagreement is not disloyalty

It may seem counterintuitive but formal processes are not a panacea for good governance; post-mortems of Enron and WorldCom, or closer to home Centro, reinforce that these companies failed despite entrenched controls.

What leaders can learn from these high profile failures it that risk-taking is a cultural issue and that with respect to decision-making, a culture that encourages independence and debate is an asset.

Yet in many companies, disagreement continues to be seen as disloyalty.

Worse, as in the case of Enron, active collusion can be seen as a precondition for maintaining a seat at the table.

In his book Innovation Corrupted: The Origins and Legacy of Enron’s Collapse, Harvard Business School Emeritus Professor Malcolm S Salter highlights sophisticated internal controls failed to impact the behaviour that led to Enron’s demise.


4 tips for being a ‘learner’ not a ‘mistake-avoider’

We learn by failing, iff failing means not getting things right all of the time.

Whether it’s those first steps, our running style or scientific discoveries that come only after trials are ditched and techniques refined, learning is process.

We are not built for perfection.

Experiments have conclusively shown that we are hard-wired to think in ways that may help us survive, but are innately flawed and that we shape realities on shaky foundations and false evidence as visual illusions show.

Even where there are no apparent flaws, we are born into cultures that define value relative to colour, creed and sex (to name but a few) and so a healthy, thinking wo/man can as easily become an enemy of the state if the circumstances allow.

So why I ask myself, has perfection become an acceptable goal? And why do we let it define our value?

We want the perfect body, partner, boss or job, a Vogue house, ideal parents, faultless kids, it seems there’s no end to our list (or lust) to achieve it.


4 ways to get past the ‘us and them’ mentality

 In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true. Buddha

You know how your hair is straight but you’ve always wanted it curly and as you jealously ogle someone’s tresses and confess your envy s/he says: gee I’ve always wanted mine straight like yours. (Extrapolate example broadly.)

Why do we do that?

There seems to be something in us that longs for what we don’t have and believes there’s a greener other side.

To make the point.


2 tips for everyday enlightenment

We find what we search for – or if we don’t find it we become it. Jessamyn West

For years I loved the idea of retreat – an ashram – the top of a mountain – anywhere so long as it was far from the madding crowd.

Here I would wake with the dawn, enjoy deep meditation and contemplative walks, be struck by profound insights between bowls of rice and green tea and later descend: enlightened.

(Not to mention skinny and with glowing skin.)

After that, truth in hand (as if such a thing exists), my proper life could begin.

Thankfully the need to earn a living prevented it then and has continued to thwart me to this day.


In tough times take the wheel

There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet. Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot)


I was talking to a friend this week about a situation in which he feels powerless in the face of change.

He was ‘waiting’ for an outcome about his future in the volatile manufacturing sector that was making him increasingly anxious and he was struggling to stay engaged. At times, he admitted, he felt depressed.

Waiting for what I asked?
Fate? Providence? Godot?

The difficulty with waiting for something to determine what happens to you is that it makes you feel less an adult than a child.

Your ‘locus of control’ (or the extent to which you believe you impact life) is farmed out to something beyond your self rather than remaining inside.


Why you should love your flaws

A friend told me about an exhibition she went to recently where the artist had created an installation by weaving together the responses of people to questions about their fears.

Freed by anonymity to express what they truly felt, the work was a poignant tale about a fragile species, compensating for its vulnerability with defenses and masks.

Not surprisingly old and young, women and men, corporates, labourers, poor, rich echoed the same moving narrative: we are afraid of being real.

Although we are all imperfect we live in a world that demands it be reigned in, tempered, hidden away.

Ironic that others ask us for perfection, which they cannot provide.

There are many reasons why we hide feelings.


What values drive you?

The issue of self, as discussed in an earlier post, may be complex but we can understand a little about it.

Whatever we think we are, or say we are; our own and others’ perceptions largely result from: what we do.

That is why it’s important to act from our values.

Of course, we are not wholly defined by behaviours nor should we be.

Sometimes life demands we reveal only a sanctioned side of ourselves, such as in an oppressive regime or unsafe family/relationships where it is prudent to keep parts tucked away.

We’ve probably all been in states at some time or another where we’ve acted ‘out of character’. A normally loving parent may lose their temper, a trusted colleague unable to hold their ground might kowtow to a decision they do not like, a partner forget to call the other to advise of a change of plan.

But the very expression suggests that these are anomalous events that do not reflect the way we normally behave. Want to know what truly drives someone? Listen to the words but pay acute attention to the patterns that appear in their lives. These are the shape of accumulated choices, some deliberate, others not, and a powerful narrative.



What masks do you wear and why?

We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin. Andre Berthiaume

We all wear masks, although the extent to which we layer ourselves varies greatly.

Typically masks are the personality layer, or persona, that we put on top of the ‘real thing’ (caveats assumed).

They are the edited and decorated versions we prefer to show the world, shielding those parts we don’t like or accept or that others ask (typically without words) us to hide to make them more comfortable. They are also protective barrier that shields an essential human insecurity – that we are not enough as we are.

At the extreme con wo/men construct a palatable false self to divert people from darker intentions. The unconscionable persona who peppers their conversation with ‘that’s against my values’, the compulsive liar who says they hate lies, the wo/maniser who prides themselves on fidelity.

With these types charm is a decoy. Or false humility. These mask-makers have no desire to lift the mask, they know very well why it is there. Seeing through them can be difficult, in particular when they are well practiced.

Masks exist on a continuum from the passive-aggressive friend to the sociopath. However for the most part, we don’t realise the masks are there.


Frank advice: can you take what you give?

The fact that you needed to know was not known at the time that the now known need to know was known… and therefore there was no authority for the authority to be informed because the need to know was not, at that time, known or needed. (Bernard in Yes Minister, Episode 8). 

Yes Minister is a brilliant TV satire that pits the conflicting desires of numerous players in the British government against each other. The battle of wills between bureaucrats, staffers and the political incumbent generates much humour and head nodding on our parts.

Inevitably though as reform goes head to head with perks, prestige and pragmatism only one winner emerges; as reflected in the trademark closer of the go-between who predictably defers with the obsequious: yes Minister.

But it’s not a show about politics as much as life, which is why we relate so readily to the power and control dynamics.

These games are played all the time in our professional and personal lives.


Productivity needs play

Given that innovation is practically a mantra for CEOs globally and that countless studies have laid out the conditions for creating it, you’d think workplaces would be operating a little differently from a decade or so ago.

The literature is overflowing with cries for agility, decentralized networks, collaborative architecture or cultures that enable creativity through play.

Yet few organizations walk their talk, demanding innovation while pinning people to desks and archaic behaviours that confer credibility simply because they are familiar.

Companies continue to worry about absenteeism rather than the far more concerning trend of what Harvard Business Review’s Paul Hemp calls presenteeism – where workers turn up without really being there, and which is far more costly than paid sick leave.

Why do we still measure inputs rather than outputs, promote head-down-bum-up cultures that drive outcomes from A to B when we know that quantum leaps result from more haphazard associations?

We have entrenched views on what a serious workplace looks like. And despite studies that suggest serious is not synonymous with productive, many of us cling to old ideas rather than pushing against them. But push we should.



The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive

The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive. Where is emotion ‘kept’ such that we could disentangle from it?

Emotion is instinctual, cognitive. Emotions are complex biochemical events triggered by and that trigger internal and external reactions. There’s some evidence that specific molecules regulate certain emotions – oxytocin with empathy, serotonin with happiness  – although this is an emerging field and we really don’t know enough.

But we can let go of the long outdated idea that thoughts and feelings float around in space separate from the body – they are embodied within it.

Many psychologies, philosophies and spiritualities teach that emotion is inferior to reason, but this idea of pure reason is a myth. Worse, the fetishisation of reason creates damage because people waste energy trying not to think or feel the way they do.

Being emotional doesn’t mean having unbridled outbursts. That’s childish. We can learn to control impulses and must in order to live respectfully amongst others.


Trust is a biological necessity

Trust is essential to human endeavour. Despite the excuses we use to wriggle out of the obligations that come with it, all relationship or work need trust to survive.

From before birth until our last breath, our lives are an intricate web of interconnectivities and interdependencies; arguably kept alive even after we die through memories and the legacies we leave behind.

In simple terms, trust is an agreement with one another about how we behave. These agreements may be both implicit and explicit, unvoiced as well as constructed. And they change.

One such implicit agreement: parents must feed and shelter a child. While parenting requires much more than just meeting these basic needs, a child’s dependency demonstrates the way in which obligations emerge by virtue of people’s relationship to each other.

This idea extends easily into the social realm. We are pack animals. We cannot escape that. Trust keeps the group functioning, in balance.

Whether we like it or not, relationships trigger accountability, as do decisions, actions.


Have a dream

The refrain I have a dream woven through Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington speech embodies the pain of his (and many) people and the deep longing for a just society.

Although a cry to free America from racial segregation, ostensibly it arouses that which in us seeks a nobler vision for humanity.

We all express that differently.

For some – it is a revolutionary cryFor others it is holding to learned and self-evident truths that all wo/men are created equal. It could be a sincere commitment to the Buddhist principles of good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end. The detail does not matter so much as the intention and that is progress.

Great leaders embody these ideals. Gifted with the ability to inspire those around them, they make them real. Sometimes romanticised, these leaders evoke the particular: a time, a place, the cause that pushed us forward.


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