(How to) Stay on The F*****G Bus

I recently came across Helsinki bus theory, an interesting metaphor by the photographer Arno Minkinnen which is usually applied to creativity.  Being a big fan of bus metaphors, I started using it with my coaching clients and it resonates, so let me explain:

In Helsinki all buses follow the same route at the start of their journey.  For at least 1 km all buses take the same route and make the same stops, irrespective of their number and eventual destination.

Helsinki 3

After this they diverge and the differently numbered buses start to separate into more distant and less familiar parts of Helsinki.

HelsinkiLet’s imagine that in the metaphor you are a new artist who wants to create innovative art.  Each bus stop represents one year of your life, so the third bus stop represents 3 years of learning your craft and trying new things out.

After 3 years people begin to notice your work but they start by comparing it to people who have done similar work before.  Being driven to do something unique, you feel discouraged at finding you’re following someone else’s path.   So what do you do?

You get off the bus, go back to the terminus and try another route.

This time you take a different number bus in the hope that it will lead to something different.

But the same thing happens.  You had the intention of changing to something new, but you get compared to others and feel discouraged.  So back to the terminus you go. As Minkinnen says “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.”

So what’s the answer?

Well the advice offered by Minkinnen is simple:

Stay on the fucking bus.

Exactly!  Stay on the bus!  And this is true not just for creative endeavours, but for anything that requires persistence, including career, life or behaviour change.  As this HBR article makes clear, it is long term commitment to a direction which is often the key to success.

The Problem with Staying on the Bus

Unfortunately, most of us find staying on the bus very difficult, mainly because we are directed by our short term thoughts and feelings. Just as in the case of the artist, we feel as though nothing has really changed, that this is just the same as before, that maybe we should have taken a different route.

This is where we all need help to understand how to stay on the bus.

How to Stay on the Bus

The first step is to get clear on which bus you want to get on.  I suggest a combination of decision science, The Dip and values work for this.

But next we need to learn how to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come from staying on the bus.

Let’s be clear that it is not the feelings themselves that force us off the bus.  It is our interpretation of those feelings – our relationship to them – which leads us to get off early.

The Role of Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the ability to see our immediate experience from different perspectives.  For example, instead of thinking about our immediate thoughts and emotions, we can consider our longer term values.  Instead of seeing emotions as reliable guides to behaviour, we can place them in a different context as the flipside of what really matters.   Instead of running away automatically from certain thoughts, we can see them as just learned behaviour and not something we necessarily need to listen to or struggle with.

With practice, we can become less influenced by our short term impulses (‘this is just the same as last time!’) and more by our long term values.

This can help us to stay on the bus, and to persist even when our immediate thoughts and emotions make persisting difficult.

Passengers on the bus

Noticing How Desire Can Pull You Away From Your Values

When does desire pull you away from your values?

It might be the impulse to buy more stuff that you don’t really need; watch TV instead of doing some exercise; let work dominate your  life; make poor choices that change your life forever…

In this TEDx talk, Kelly McGonigal explains that the urges provoked by desire (the promise of happiness) have a tendency to overpower current happiness and satisfaction.

Desire for something you don’t have, but would like (in my case, millions of dollars and to write a best selling book!) can create stronger impulses than the feelings of contentment associated with what you do have (for me now: love, health, safety, meaningful work that uses my strengths). Even though what you have now may be much more important to you than what you desire.

When we feel that experience of wanting something, we feel an urge to do something to get that desire met. If we are to handle this tricky emotion wisely then we need to be clear about who we want to be and what we want our life to stand for. We need to have chosen the values we want to live by. But knowing your values isn’t enough.

Last week, Paul suggested that mindfulness helps us to turn our values into action. When desire is moving you away from what really matters, mindfulness can help you to ride out the urges rather than mindlessly chase what you desire .

You can mindfully notice how feelings of wishing and wanting are pulling you in a particular direction and check if that would be a move towards your values. You can become aware when desire is in control of your behaviour, catch yourself and come back to what really matters to you in the long term – love? kindness? connection? your health? security?

I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that you abandon your ‘big, hairy, audacious goals‘, what I am suggesting is that you also:

1. Compassionately notice when pursuit of those goals feels driven and addictive. Pause and breathe and see if you can ride those impulses like waves rather than act on them.

2. Keep checking in as to how the goals you are currently pursuing fit with your values and life purpose

3. Have the ‘willpower’ to spend some time paying attention to other important areas of your life even though you may feel the addictive pull of the desire for something ‘bigger and better’ calling to you. Your thoughts might whisper, ‘I’ll just send one more email; read/write one more blog post; sign up for that course that promises to make me rich.’ Can you have those thoughts and the feelings associated with them and still spend the afternoon in the garden with your loved ones? Can you have those thoughts and feelings and bring your attention back to this moment now with all its small pleasures and pains?

Kelly McGonigal suggests that the recurring difficulties we experience in handling our desire well is not a sign that there is:

Something uniquely wrong with us – but it is actually part of being human. it is not just you, it is all of us.

Oddly, for me, accepting this makes it easier to deal with. How about you?

[I am running a low cost, one day workshop on ACT at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on  Sun 3rd March.  All proceeds go to the centre. I would love to see you there.]

The Different Motivational Properties of Values and Goals

When committing to a new course of action it’s useful to distinguish between values and goals because they have different motivational properties.

  1. Goals can be achieved.  This is why they motivate – we enjoy the feeling of purpose and progress this brings.  Yet, once the goal is achieved what then?  Very often we revert to our previous behaviour.  This explains the diet industry.  And why it is hard to get a taxi in New York in the rain*.
  2. Goals can’t be achieved right now.  So they can be bad at motivating right now (when I need it).  For example, I have a SMART goal to lose a half stone in weight in the next 2 months.  The trouble is, I have had that goal for about 3 years….  The problem lies in the fact that whilst I cannot meet the goal today, what I can do is eat a piece of cake.  cakeSo, when I see a piece of cake a question arises in my mind; can I eat the cake and still meet my goal?  Then some uncertainty arises in my mind – maybe I can have both?  Minds hate uncertainty and they will do almost anything to get rid of it.  So what do you think I do to get rid of the uncertainty?
  3. Goals are powerful motivators. Humans are intrinsically goal oriented and our minds like the feeling of purpose which goals offer.  Yet goals can be set without us really examining why.  Once set, their gravitational pull can pull us away from the things we truly value.  Hence, for about 10 years I busied myself pursuing promotions which I did not really care about.  Whilst pursuing I felt busy and purposeful, but once achieved I felt empty and sad.  I worked so hard to climb the ladder, only to find the ladder leaning against the wrong wall.

In contrast values have different motivational properties which can help us in many different ways.

  1. Values can never be achieved.  So values retain their motivational properties long after a goal’s have been ticked off.  Whilst my goal of losing half a stone could be achieved, acting in accordance with the value of health can never be.  Is it important or not?  If it is, then when will it cease to be so?
  2. Values can be lived in each moment.  So, although Viktor Frankl was not free inside Auschiwtz, he was able to make the value of freedom important by choosing his response to the tyranny he saw.  In this way, values can bring us powerfully into the present moment and, over time, can bring greater coherence to patterns of behaviour over far longer periods.  This builds a much more powerful sense of meaning in life.
  3. Values are what we most want to stand for in life.  They are how we want to be remembered and what we want to stand for in life.  When we act in line with our values we act authentically and in alignment with our deepest motivations and aspirations. Maybe (like me) you have spent much of your life pursuing meaningless goals before realising that life is a musical thing – and we are supposed to sing and dance whilst the music plays…

*They knock off earlier because they meet their daily goal earlier

How Believing You Will Be Successful Leads to Success..or Not

If, like me, you watch ‘The Voice’ or ‘Dragon’s Den’ or ‘(Insert Country you live in here) Idol’ or any similarly painful and joyful reality TV show, you will have heard competitors proclaiming that they won because they had ‘absolute faith’ that they would win.

Ben Gulak after being given $1.25 Million by the Dragons said, ‘If you really believe in something, keep going after it. If you want it badly enough there is always a way. You can make your dreams come true’

But if you watch a few of these shows you might also notice that there are hundreds of people with ‘absolute faith’ that they would win and most of them don’t end up the winner.

(Be warned  – this clip is painful to watch. Mary Roach who said ‘I want this so bad, there is no way I am not going to get it‘ and then gets a dose of reality.)

and sometimes it is actually the person who is a bit doubtful about how good they are who wins:

(The deeply vulnerable Karise Eden, winner of The Voice Australia, singing with her mentor, Seal.)

So what does this mean?

Believing you will succeed can help you to set challenging goals and persist in the face of difficulty which does increase your chances of success. But if you fuse with the belief that you will succeed and treat it as the absolute truth then you aren’t open to feedback. You don’t even notice subtle feedback and you respond to more direct feedback with defensiveness and anger. Which means that you can’t learn, improve or change tack. So you are actually less likely to succeed.

What is a better plan?

  1. Be clear about what values you want to express as you go after your goal. Notice the moments when the desire to win pulls you away from being the person you want to be. Then pause and breathe and come back to living your values. For Karise it looks like she has some deeply held values around singing from her heart; opening herself to the vulnerability of connecting with her own pain as she sings.
  2. Make a plan that gives you the best shot at success. Do some research. Have other people succeeded at something similar? What did they do?
  3. As you progress seek feedback and adjust your plan as you get more information.
  4. Have some clear ideas about how long you will persist. What sacrifices are you willing to make and what sacrifices aren’t you willing to make? What will you use as a marker to tell you it is time to quit and move on to something else or that it is worth persisting some more?

And remember, the goals that are most likely to lead to emotional wellbeing are about connection, curiosity and kindness.  So perhaps you don’t have to win ‘The Voice’?

Using ACT in Career Change

Why do bright, motivated people get stuck in their careers? I’ve spent the last 10 years or so thinking about the issue and working with people who are stuck in this way. I write about this in my other blog, Headstuck. I find ACT is useful for people who are stuck because it helps them not only get unstuck but to move forward with purpose in a direction they choose. ACT liberates people.

I put together a presentation on this and it struck me that it might be of interest to readers of this blog.  Hope you enjoy!

How to Pitch an Idea (or, How ‘Dragon’s Den’ Relates to ACT)

Dragon’s Den is a show where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a group of successful business people in the hope of winning some investment.

The show fascinates me. I love spotting academic theories about influence and negotiation being played out in real life. The show also demonstrates how more psychologically flexible entrepreneurs tend to be more successful in their pitches. Professor Frank Bond has done some cool research at the BBC to support this idea.

There seem to be a few key principles if you want to get the approval of the investors.

1. Consider the perspective of the investors (Why would they want to invest? What will they gain?); potential customers (Why would they buy?) and competitors (How easy would it be for them to steal my idea?). Perspective taking is a key aspect of psychological flexibility.

2. Hold ideas like ‘This is a brilliant idea and I am going to be incredibly successsful‘ lightlyFusing with these sorts of thoughts seems to increase the risk of throwing good money after bad and doesn’t seem to convince others.

3. Understand the difference between solid, real world facts and what your mind is telling you. Others find facts much more convincing than your opinion. Smart business people consider the facts (Sales figures, profits, awards won) when they make decisions.

4. Learn to perform well even when you are feeling incredibly anxious. This is a great strength of the ACT approach. ACT teaches people how to perform even when they are feeling strong emotions. Rob and I have a course on this.

5. When you are having an important conversation – really listen to what the other person is saying. Get present with them and give them your full attention. Be open to their feedback and also be willing to give them facts that might change their mind.

6. Know your values and live those values in the interaction. You then come across as vital, authentic and trustworthy (assuming those are your values!)

7. Know how this ‘pitch’ fits with what you want your life to be about. Is this a drive to make money or does it connect to something deeper?

7. Demonstrate willingness. What are you prepared to do to make your idea successful? Live on very little money? Work hard? Face rejection? Acknowledge what you don’t know and ask for help?

Here is someone who nailed it – sadly he completely misses the reason he nailed it.

Effective Decision Making

Sometimes we have to make important decisions where the ‘right’ answer is unclear. I would like to suggest this process for making for those tricker decisions:

1. Which of your values are relevant in this situation?

2. What are the key facts? In this step aim to see the world the way it really is rather than as your mind tells you it is.

3. What is the relationship between the facts – how do they interact?

4. Focus in depth on different parts of the problem (whilst keeping the whole in mind). Take different perspectives – how would others view this problem? How will you view this problem in 5 years time?

5. Consider that there may be a better alternative that you haven’t thought of. Ask for advice. Do some research. Brainstorm. Consider trialling different options and observing how they turn out.

6. Be prepared to sit either with the discomfort of not deciding or with the discomfort of deciding and possibly making the wrong decision. See if it possible to have those difficult thoughts and feelings without them pushing you around. 

7. Make a decision and then check it against your values – is this a move towards what you want your life to be about?

6. Observe the outcome and be prepared to make incremental adjustments. Again, work to see the world as it really is – rather than how your mind tells you it is.

This process draws on Roger Martin’s work on Integrative Thinking

I think he has developed a great model and adding in connection to values, defusion, perspective taking and acceptance make it that bit better!

Rob wrote a great post on the costs of making decisions without any connection to values.

Who runs your life?

In this brilliant TED talk, Daniel Kahneman talks about the tensions between our experiencing self and our remembering self.

Daniel Kahneman – The Riddle of Experience v Memory

He says that our memories of the past inform our expectations of the future and determine our decision making.

The problem is that our memories are inaccurate. We fail to notice so much of what is happening in the present moment. Our memory of whether we enjoyed something is overly influenced by how the last few minutes of the experience went (Kahneman explains that it is the last minute of a colonoscopy that determine how we view the experience – good to know!). Each time we tell the story of what happened (even just to ourselves) we unconsciously slightly change the story.

Daniel Kahneman suggests that this causes us a significant problem. Our remembering self forces our experiencing self  to do things that aren’t really in our best interests. We work to earn more and more money (even though, once we are comfortably off, it won’t make much difference to our happiness). We spend our money on long, expensive holidays (even though a longer  holiday doesn’t actually make us much happier than a shorter one). We avoid doing what matters (calling Grandma; expressing our view in a meeting; doing our exercises) because our memory of the last time we did it suggests it will make us feel bad.

So how do we manage this tension? How do we make wise decisions?

The research evidence is growing that a helpful approach is to:

  • Hold the stories our remembering self tells us lightly – sometimes they are useful and sometimes not so much.
  • Clarify our values (what we want our life to be about) and then use them to guide our decision making.

Fairness is a Double-Edged Sword

In my work as an Executive coach I usually ask my clients to take the VIA Character Strengths test. The test gives you a list of your top five character strengths or ‘values in action’.

I have observed that strengths can be a double-edged sword. We can overplay certain strengths to our detriment.

For example, those who rate ‘Fairness, Equity and Justice’ in their top five can find that their determination to be ‘fair’ to others means that they can have a tendency to carry too large a workload.

The wisest response to these issues seems to be to dig a little deeper into what ‘fairness’ is. 

Carol Gilligan described three levels of ethical development;

  1. Focus on the self – making sure that my needs get met.
  2. Focus on the well being of others – a desire to do good through self-sacrifice
  3. A focus on ‘nonviolence’  – do not hurt others or self

The first two stages are easier perspectives to make decisions from – is it all about me or all about you? However, the third stage, where both my needs and yours need to be considered is a much more complex decision making situation.

What can help here is a to look at the decision from some different perspectives:

  1. The perspective of the future you – If you repeatedly make this decision, what will your life be like in 10 years time? Is that what you want?
  2. The perspective of a wise person – What would a wise person do?
  3. The perspective of an observer – If someone watched all your choices what would they say were your values? What would they think your life stood for?

Your Three Selves

Stop for a moment and think about who you are….

In response to this question most of us come up with a list of statements about ourselves, perhaps some memories; some labels about the roles we play; some values; our beliefs about our personality: I am a mother; I am a business woman; I am a gardener; I like chocolate; I am kind; I am lazy; I am messy; I have a Derbyshire accent….

We develop these ideas about ourselves throughout our lives but particulalry in childhood – who we are, what we like; what we dislike. These stories we have about ourselves are important because they help us to maintain some sense of self coherence. However, if we treat these self descriptions as true, fixed and unchangeable then they can limit us. It is helpful to hold these self-descriptions lightly. One term to describe this aspect of the self is ‘the conceptualised self’.

There is another aspect of self. This is the part of us that watches what is happening in each moment. The part of us that can notice our thoughts, feelings and actions. Research on mindfulness suggests that if we can learn to observe our thoughts and feelings with openness and curiosity we can make better decisions, perhaps because we get better at noticing our thoughts and feelings rather than being unconsciously controlled by them. This aspect of ourself is called ‘self-as-awareness’.

The third self is the ‘observer self’. This is the ‘you’ that is the context in which all of these thoughts and feelings occur. The ‘you’ that notices that you are noticing your thoughts. The ‘you’ that has been consistent all through your life, even though you have grown and changed. Sometimes we become aware of this unchanging part of ourself during a moment of crisis. People who have coped resiliently with traumatic events often talk about connecting with this part of themselves: ‘I realised that there is a part of me that can not be hurt by painful thoughts, feelings and memories or even outside circumstance.’ Steve Hayes describes this aspect of the self as like the sky – our thoughts and feelings are like the weather, constantly changing, but the sky is always there. Having a sense of this unchanging aspect of the self can help us to handle difficulty with more grace and less panic.