Could It Be Helpful To Focus On Your Mistakes?

Do you have a tendency to focus on your mistakes? To notice the 5% of your presentation that wasn’t as good as it could be? To really remember and mentally grind over the times when your work was mediocre or even a bit rubbish?

I do.

English: Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the ...
English: Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the trailer for the film Mary Poppins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was keen on challenging such ‘dysfunctional thoughts’, I would give myself a pep talk about it, ‘Now Rachel,  this is ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. Just because you didn’t handle that question from the audience well, doesn’t mean it was terrible. Let’s remember what went well’.  It was like Mary Poppins lived inside my head. She meant well but she kind of irritated me. Do you know the voice I mean? The one that tries to help you think more positively?

When I discovered ACT, I started to respond differently to these thoughts. Instead of trying to change them, I worked on noticing them with curiosity.

Have you tried that approach? What did you notice? Perhaps you tend to be hardest on yourself when your behaviour doesn’t align with your values. You might also notice which feelings turn up when you don’t do as well as you had hoped – shame, guilt, embarrassment, disappointment?  What urges do you get when these thoughts and feelings turn up? Do you feel like you want to give up or do you want to try to do better next time?

This curiosity about your thoughts, feelings and impulses can be very useful. It makes it easier to become more flexible in responding to your thoughts and feelings and this can improve performance.

This curiosity might help you to notice those times when focussing on mistakes disheartens you and other times when it actually motivates you to improve.

When you are trying a new behaviour and you are worried that you won’t ever succeed then a self-critical stance can be de-motivating. Which is okay if the activity doesn’t relate to what is important to you. But if it does matter to you, if it is a move towards what you want your life to be about, then letting Mary Poppins give you a motivational pep talk might be helpful. ‘You can do it! Everyone messes up when they are starting out! This is really important to you. Keep going and you will get better at this. What is one small action you could take today that would move you forwards?‘ Note: The pep talk is best if it is realistic, links to your values and focusses on taking action.  Telling yourself you are doing wonderfully and are destined for stardom can be problematic.  You aren’t trying to get rid of the painful thoughts – that tends to be self-defeating.

However, if you notice that the self-critical thoughts encourage you to try harder then a different approach may be useful.  If you are highly motivated to achieve mastery at a behaviour and over time you have been becoming better with practice, then you may find it useful to focus on your mistakes. Focussing on the places where you have done poorly and working out how to improve are an important part of becoming an expert.

So next time you notice self-critical thoughts, you might want to try this approach:

  1. Pause – notice the thoughts, notice your feelings, notice your impulses
  2. Check in with your values – is this something that really matters to you? If it does, then consider either:
  3. Giving yourself a self compassionate, values driven pep talk and then take a small action to move yourself forwards, or,
  4. Really focussing on the mistake and working on improving your performance.

It is all about psychological flexibility!

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 You Can Make 2013 A Successful Year

So here we are in 2013. What will it take for you to define this year as successful?

Let’s start by looking back on 2012. What did you achieve? What mistakes did you make? Where do you feel you failed?

measuring up
measuring up (Photo credit: woodleywonderworks)

Did you get a promotion or an increase in salary? Did you buy something important like a house or a car? Did you fail to get elected to serve as President of the USA?

It can be easy to focus on these external markers of success or failure. But what about your internal yard stick? How much were you the person you want to be? How often were you mindful or generous or brave or loving or …(insert your own values here).

How good were you at noticing the times when you weren’t living your values and then gently adjusting your behaviour so it aligned more closely with who you want to be?

‘Values are your heart’s deepest desires for how you want to behave as a human being. Values are not about what you want to get or achieve; they are about how you want to behave or act on an ongoing basis.’

Russ Harris  – The Happiness Trap

Measuring your life by what you achieve isn’t wrong but the research suggests that we over estimate the impact of these events. We think that if we get the good job and nice house we will be happy and so we conscientiously pursue those goals. Sometimes we are so busy striving that we neglect other important aspects of our life, like nurturing our health and our relationships, and we forget who we are and what we want to stand for.

The second way of measuring your life – Did I live my values? Was I the person I want to be? – is both more likely to create richness and meaning and will tend to support you in making those moment to moment choices that determine the direction of your life.

So as you review 2012 and before you set yourself some goals for 2013, spend a few moments revisiting your values.  Lundgren’s Bull’s Eye activity is a cool way of doing this.

Find Your Passion At Work! (Just Don’t Expect to Feel Passionate About It When You Do)

One of the reasons I left consultancy is because I felt that the work was meaningless.  In meetings I would try not to fall asleep as people droned on about project dependencies and stakeholder management and at the weekend all I did was dread Mondays.

It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, it was the lack of something that bothered me.  I wanted to feel passion and meaning at work, instead I experienced a sense that I did not care about the low hanging fruit as much as other people seemed to.

Now, many years later, I have created a working life which I do feel passionate about.  Some nights I have to force myself to go to bed – like a child on Christmas day – because that will make the next day come faster.  Some days I work with a client and it will hit me: I love this.

So for all the people who write about finding your passion at work: good for you.  It is possible.  It is necessary.  Well done!

But your books are still at best horribly misleading and at worst, dangerous…


The thing about passion at work is that it is rarely characterised by feelings of passion.  It is, if anything, characterised by feelings of anxiety and doubt, particularly in the early days.  For me those years were filled with thoughts about whether this was really the right thing, whether I could do it, whether I was falling behind my peers.

Even today those moments where I feel  passionate about what I do are rare and fleeting.  Working with people who are stuck can be draining and usually I am assailed by doubts about my own ability to help, my mind telling me what a terrible psychologist I am.  Plus it can be very painful working with people who are themselves in pain.

Is this what I left consultancy to find?  Is this really passion at work?

Well, yes.  I am truly passionate about what I do and I am so thankful that I get to do it (well, most days).

But if I had not been show how to grow more willing to respond flexibly to painful thoughts and emotions, then I would have never have reached where I am now.

In short, if I had defined passion as feelings of passion then the journey would have stopped long, long ago.


If You Can’t Have It All, What Can You Have?

I believe that we have been sold a myth. A myth that tells us ‘If you try really, really hard then you can have it all’ – love; money; success; a wonderful family; happy kids; health; a beautiful body; a lovely home…

This myth can exhaust us. We run around trying to get everything right. Feeling anxious about all we haven’t done.

My messy garden. I decided to grow some veggies – then I neglected them and they died

The messy garden; the plump belly; the distracted attention we give to our partner. The job list at work that never seems to get any shorter. The school tuck shop duty we didn’t do.

We think that if we were just more organised, smarter, better in some ill-defined way; then we would be doing all of these things with grace and flair.

But what if we were to accept that we can’t actually do it all or have it all? What would that be like?

Instead of focussing on getting everything right, perhaps we could give our attention to becoming more and more like our ideal self. We could focus on living our values.

Perhaps you can’t have it all but instead over time you can become a better version of yourself.

In order to become more like your ideal self, you have to decide what you want that person to be like. Rob has gathered together some values clarification exercises here that might help you to decide who you want to be.

However, I need to give you a warning.

Knowing your values may not actually make your life easier. Moment by moment, again and again, you will still have to choose – do I give my attention and energy to my kids, my work, my partner, my health, the housework…?

And that choice is sometimes painful. At those moments, try asking yourself: What would the person I want to be do now? It might help you to make choices that lead to a life that is rich and meaningful And that might just be better than having it all.

What do you think? Can we have it all?

(This blog post has developed as a result of some conversations I am having with CEO’s and senior managers about their experiences of meaningful success. I would like to thank Jayne Gallagher, Manager Product and Market Development at Australian Seafood CRC and Tristan White, CEO of The Physio Co for exploring this topic with me.)

A Summer of Defying Labels

Today the Paralympics end and I’ve been reflecting what it has all meant to me.

One of the major themes has been about the Olympics’ capacity to defy labels.  Labels can be useful to help us understand things and give us comforting narratives to cling to.  Yet at the same time they can limit and constrain us.

A key skill within psychological flexibility is to hold labels and stories lightly and to see things from multiple perspectives.  It struck me that one of the many legacies of these Olympics will be to help us do that.  Here are a few of the main labels which have been defied this summer:

Britain can’t do public projects

The British media go on about how we stuffed up the Millennium celebrations and how Wembley was late and over budget.  And now we want to do the Olympics, they asked?

Of course not only were the venues completed on time and under budget, they were also extraordinary…

We can never match the Chinese

The Beijing Olympics were extraordinary, particular the power and precision of the opening and closing ceremonies.  We could never match that.  True.  We could never match that.

But we could utterly transform the meaning and purpose of the event by hosting an incredible spectacle of openness, humour and subversiveness.  We couldn’t match the Chinese, but we could redefine the rules altogether.

London 2012 is just for London

Maybe.  Though the torch relay gave us a different perspective.  The nation turned out for it.  And it went everywhere.

Londoners are unfriendly

I often hear this, but only rarely point out how contextual it is.  London is so huge that on a day to day basis we tend to give each other space.  But during these Olympics Londoners greeted the world with warmth and joy.

As they had done in Sydney, the City itself embraced the games with all its heart.

It was the people – symbolised by the magnificent Games Makers – who truly made these games.

Other nations are X, Y, Z [insert stereotype]

I remember the extraordinary reaction to an Iranian runner who won gold in the stadium and how the London crowd stood in respect for the Iranian national anthem.  I remember a North Korean runner being cheered home because he was last.

Sport subverts and transcends.  These Olympics were no exception.

The weather was awful

This was the wettest summer for 100 years.  Yet, I went to 8 different days of Olympic action and was caught in one, brief shower.  I look through my photos and most took place against a backdrop of fluffy white clouds and blue sky.

It’s just that so often do we run the weather down maybe we don’t notice how the weather actually is.

‘Plastic’ Brits

The Daily Mail ran a charming campaign against Brits who come to compete for Team GB from other countries.  Then it quietly forgot the campaign when Mo Farah won the hearts of the nation.

And nothing made the nation prouder than Mo – a symbol for modern Britain.

Women’s sport is second rate

For most of the year womens’ sport is seen as an afterthought.  Not at the Olympics.  This was in many ways the Female Olympics – women were treated the same way as men and public interest was the same for both.

New female role models were created at an incredible rate.  And for once, it had nothing to do with instant fame and everything to do with talent and hard work.










London 2012 also saw the first female competitors from the Middle East blazing a trail for others to follow.  It will be hard to go back now…

The Paralympics are an afterthought

After the Olympics there was an air of deflation across the country.  Then, Channel 4’s extraordinary ad campaign immediately jolted us back into life.







The Paralympics were coming.  And this time they were not sneaking into town, they were roaring in; unapologetic, defiant, proud.  Superhumans.

When they arrived they seemed somehow bolder, more extreme and more relevant than even the Olympics.  And they sold out.  For the first time ever disabled athletes played to full houses, every night.  It was impossible to get tickets and the joy and rapture in the stadia was beyond anything that had gone before.  I know because I live 500 metres from the roar.

London redefined the Paralympics.  It will never be the same again.  Over to you, Rio.

Disabled people should be pitied

It’s harder to pity someone when they can run nearly twice as fast as you can, on one leg.

Disabled people are moaners / scroungers / lazy/weak

Take your pick of labels – the disabled are used to being regarded as inferior.

And yet everywhere we looked these lazy labels were being stared down by people whose every act screamed defiance. In fact, it was impossible to look at these competitors and not feel inferior to them.

Paralympians are perfect role models

One of my favourite moments was Oscar Pistorius questioning Oliveira’s running blades.  His response was unsportsmanlike, ungracious, ill-timed.  Same with Jody Cundy.  Following the example of Mark Cavendish.

I loved it.

The Olympics is ‘just’ sport

And Neil Armstrong just walked on the moon.

This summer was about human achievement – and how this is bought.

The legacy of 2012 is to inspire a generation.  At last we have a different set of role models to those created by the quick-fix, instant fame celebrity culture junk we are usually fed.   As with so much else, London 2012 gave us a different perspective.

There will be no legacy

All along the whingers and doubters (more labels!) moaned about how previous Olympics have led to financial ruin for the host city.  The media highlighted again and again how the legacy was in doubt, as though legacy is something that happens to us as opposed to being created by us.






…and as though legacy can be measured in purely financial terms.


Some of the above may be read as being overly patriotic.  If so, I’m sorry – that is not the point of the post.

I am proud of London 2012.  But the purpose of the post is about how labels can so casually be applied and how they limit us and constrain us.  We apply labels like this to others and to ourselves every day.  (I know I do).

But ACT helps us to hold these labels lightly and to view events from multiple perspectives.    The result is usually compassion for ourselves and others.

We are not labels, or types.  The Olympics reminded us that we are large and contain multitudes.

And above all that is what we should celebrate, and remember.

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’?

What The Olympic Opening Ceremony Meant To Me

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises.

How to top Beijing?  That was the question that rang in the air prior to the event.  It seemed impossible, such was the unified precision, power and purpose of China’s message in The Bird’s Nest.

London by contrast feels so contradictory and imperfect.   The talk before the event (ludicrously and shortsightedly) was all about the traffic, congestion, security and the weather.  Many worried about how the ceremony could represent a post-Empire, post Industrial Age Britain.  This debate felt perfectly captured by the almost existential question: who should light the Olympic flame?  After all, who are we today?  Do we know?

Having recently returned from the ACBS Conference, this is an interesting question.  Viewing the self as one single, fixed entity can be deeply problematic, because it leads to fusion and inflexibility. Conversely, accepting a more diverse version of one’s ‘self’ (or identity) can bring a broader, more flexible repertoire of behaviour and greater freedom to move towards one’s values.

In the post-Imperial age, Britain has long searched for a clear identity.  From one perspective, this is a problem, for we all need to feel a collective sense of ‘we’.  But from a contextual behavioural perspective this lack of identity – this ‘isle full of noises’ – means there is more space for freedom and flexibility.

Now at the Opening Ceremony the stadium was throbbing with life.  Many different stories were told, but there was no ideology being pushed, other than perhaps that of humanity itself.

This means we can celebrate the NHS whilst wondering about its funding.  We can mark the right to protest whilst hosting an event which requires control (and yes, restrictive commercial practices). We can pay tribute to our fallen, whilst feeling uncomfortable with our Imperial past.  This is who we are and it is everything that we are. Instead of the control of Beijing, we had the humanity of London.

It is not clarity or certainty or one single identity which characterises London.  In fact, it is the absence of these things which makes it great.  This is what the Opening Ceremony so perfectly captured – the uncertainty, diversity, self-deprecation, madness and creativity of Britain.

People are not types and they restrict themselves when they act as though they are.  In the same way, London’s acceptance of its various selves, including its imperfections, can offer us all a template for moving forward, with compassion, for  ourselves and for others.

Does this mean we contradict ourselves? Very well, we contradict ourselves.  But we are large, and we contain multitudes.

In the end it wasn’t one person who lit the Olympic flame, but many.  This was for everyone, and all of us.

Welcome to London 2012.

Creating Great Mentoring Relationships


Last night I spoke at an event held by the QUT Career Mentors Scheme. They were a great group of people – the mentees are students about to finish their degree and the mentors volunteer their time to support the students as they make the transition from study to work.

I shared some ideas on how to create great mentoring relationships, particularly how to avoid mentoring relationships that lack vitality and are….frankly boring.

Here is the handout that goes with the talk: How To Create Great Mentoring Relationships


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!