Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Age of Outrospection

Nearly everyone I work with wants their life to be meaningful and fulfilling. My own research indicates that meaning is something that can be accurately predicted and defined. And one of the things that predicts it best is the idea of a transcendent purpose - an objective beyond your own interests. This does not have to be 'good' or 'worthy', but is more akin to Steve Jobs' idea of 'denting the universe' - impacting something beyond just yourself.

It's interesting to note that a transcendent purpose is something you can choose. It is not a trait, or even a state. It's more like a goal or a vision, but is also enduring like a value.

What a transcendent purpose leads to is an attitude of openness and curiosity about the world.  And one of the key attributes that this outlook teaches over time, is empathy.

Empathy is an idea whose time has come. Introspection is essential, and indeed I use psychology primarily to enhance self awareness. But self awareness is only ever part 1 of a journey to find meaning. 

Meaning can't be found in isolation, it can only be found by understanding the interaction between ourselves and the world around us.  This involves empathy.

The brilliant Roman Krznaric at the School of Life has a better word for this.  He argues that if the 20th century was the age of introspection, the 21st century must be the age of outrospection.   And to examine this further, he writes a brilliant blog of the same name.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Making decisions

Psychology is frustrating because it seems at once to offer no answers at all and at the same time to prove things which are obvious. But occasionally, it strikes at the heart of something.

Robert Cialdini's book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, describes an experiment whereby 17% of people agreed to have an enormous ugly billboard reading "Drive Carefully" erected in their front gardens. Two weeks earlier, a subgroup of residents had agreed to display a three-inch-square notice saying "Be A Safe Driver". Revealingly, 76% of those who agreed to the large billboard agreed to the smaller one.

The point is this is how most of us make decisions. Even big ones, like career choices. We drift into jobs often through chance, sometimes because it's what's expected of us or because it pays well or because we've done something similar before. But this small decision is likely then to shape a huge part of the rest of your life, because humans justify their decisions to themselves after the event. We seek consistency, above all.

As Oliver Burkeman says: Partly, this is a matter of keeping up appearances: if you've presented yourself as committed to road safety, you may fear, albeit subconsciously, giving a contradictory impression.

This is where career psychology can offer some insight.  We need to know ourselves better, and as objectively as possible, if we are to make sound decisions. Otherwise we risk falling into something, then justifiying our decisions for the rest of our lives.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Mindfulness on the way home

I just stopped and looked for a while.

Incredibly, my busy and important world didn't fall apart.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Steve Hayes at UCL

Spent the last 2 days in a workshop with Steve Hayes, creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

To say the least, it is challenging.  A common experience to nearly everyone is to feel lost and confused.  And yet.  ACT is taking off .  Something resonates.


For me, it is clear.  ACT appeals to head and heart.

The appeal to the heart is that human pain is inevitable and normal.   Even useful.  This is a relief from the cutlural assumption that we can and should be happier.   I know, deep down, that emotional control doesn't work, but having a way of renegotating my relationship to those thoughts helps a lot.  Seeing the context of thoughts change allows me to live a more meaningful life - it's the thorn in the service of the rose.  This is why, in my view, ACT represents the future of positive psychology.

And then the head.  ACT  has a growing body evidence to suggest it works in everything from chronic pain to workplace stress.  From anxiety and depression to OCD.  That's important, but perhaps even more important is that it is based on a clear theoretical premise, so there's has an explanation not just that something works but why.  Having a theory-based intervention allows us to predict mdeiators (or mechanisms) of change, so we begin to understand the process of why something works as well as the simple fact that it works.  That's what Relational Frame Theory brings.

It's a huge challenge to sit in a Steve Hayes workshop when I have a business to run.  I panic when I think of the time I've spent training (over 5 years now).  But each time I learn a little more and my head and heart tell me that this is what being a psychologist is truly about.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

50 Side Businesses To Set Up From Home

From The Guardian, some useful suggestions for side businesses you could set up to help finance a career change. 

Watch your mind as you read - it will say things like:

1. I've read all this sort of stuff before
2. That's fine for someone else, but not me
3. I could never do that
4. I would look like a fool / cheap / a failure

See if you can notice those thoughts, thank your mind for its input and go deeper into the option.  If you can find something that allows you to cling on financially, one of these options could help you make your escape plan work and help you find freedom.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

In the Arena

"It's not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred with the sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause and who, at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." 

Theodore Roosevelt.

Job Hunting Tips

from The Onion:

Today's job market is more competitive than ever. Here are some tips to help give you the edge:

  • Make sure your résumé is free of spelling and grammatical errors, grease stains, crumbs, blood splatters, and bits of hair and gristle.
  • Be aggressive: Don't be afraid to call a potential employer every few hours and say, "Is there an opening yet? How 'bout now? How 'bout now? Now?"
  • When waiting for a job interview and a fellow applicant is there, strike up a conversation. Then, when it's your turn to be interviewed, stand up and say, "See ya, sicko." Explain to the interviewer that he invited you to a goat-sex orgy.
  • If you attended Harvard, Yale, or another prestigious Ivy League institution, don't bother noting this on your résumé. Or even creating a résumé at all. Just have one of the other assholes from your school get you a job.
  • Be sure to pronounce résumé "REH-zoo-may," which means "a list of one's accomplishments and qualifications," and not like the word "resume," which means "to unpause Resident Evil 3."
  • After providing a contact number for your "former employer at Merrill Lynch," be sure to change your answering machine to say, "Hi, this is Merrill Lynch, we're not in right now."
  • If, during an interview, you sense that they have detected one or more of the falsehoods in your résumé, throw a smoke bomb on the floor and escape in the ensuing confusion.
  • When a job application asks you to list "Reason You Left Previous Job," make it clear you were not at fault. Write, "Boss was total Nazi."
  • Have a long history of experience in the field you're applying for and glowing recommendations. Either that, or print your résumé on really nice, heavyweight ivory paper.
  • Post your résumé online. This will give it an air of authority and legitimacy that only the Internet can confer.
  • When writing a cover letter to a prospective employer, stress that, although you used to admire their company, they totally suck now, but that if they hire you, you can help make them great again. That will definitely work.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Love after love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

(Derek Walcot, 1930 - )

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Career Paralysis - Five Reasons Why Our Brains Get Stuck Making Career Decisions

Well, over 4,000 people read the first version, but this one is better!  
If you're in career paralysis and want to get out, read this.

ps.  you can download this by going here.
Best viewed in 'slide show' mode in Powerpoint - as it's animated.

Career paralysis (pt 2) - Untangling Your Thoughts and Finding Your Direction

Part 2 is all about getting out of career paralysis. Includes loads of free ideas to get unstuck and heading in a meaningful direction.

Warning:  These presentations contain humour.

View more presentations from Rob Archer.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Happiness and Meaning

When I was in my 20s and early 30s I dedicated my life (outside of work) to the pursuit of what you might call happiness.  I was the life and soul of the party (transl. got very drunk indeed), went on fantastic holidays, bought nice things and generally lived a great life.

And slowly I grew depressed.

In 2003 I read a book called Authentic Happiness in which Martin Seligman explained how there were three different types of happiness. 

The Pleasant life
Consisting of having as many positive emotions as frequently as possible.  

The Engaged life
Achieved by knowing your highest strengths and using these as often as possible.

The Meaningful life
Consisting of using your highest strengths in the service of something that you believe in.  

I intrinsically knew that this was true.  Overall life satisfaction is not just a function of pleasure, it is a function of engagement and meaning.  

On holiday, even my famous koala impressions brought only superficial happiness.
But I think that 'happiness' is most often interpreted as the pleasant life - in other words maximising the number of positive thoughts and emotions one has in any given day.  Society certainly points us this way.  Dare I say it, so does Martin Seligman.  The trouble is this is a very poor strategy for pursuing meaning, and it was meaning that I lacked.  That's why, for me at least, happiness is a trap.

Meaning involves taking a stand, following your values and quite often, change.  But in turn these things bring anxiety, doubt and worry.  In my case, I had to relinquish the pursuit of the pleasant life (or happiness) to pursue meaning.  It was that stark. 

There's nothing wrong with having a pleasant life, and I am quite sure some of Seligman's techniques can work to increase our 'happiness thermostats' from their set point.  But now I think, why bother?  I've realised you can't have the good without the bad  (see Ryan and Deci, 2001) and if you have happy thoughts as a goal you compromise the pursuit of a meaningful life.  

I think you have to be prepared to let go of happiness in order to find it. 

So, does it work?  Does letting go of happiness and pursuing meaning paradoxically bring happiness?  Well, the honest answer is no, not for me.  My levels of stress and anxiety have gone through the roof since pursuing meaning.  I am not happier, at least in the way I have been programmed to understand the term 'happiness'.

But my struggle for meaning has brought a certain amount of compassion towards myself, too, and this affords me more strength to be compassionate to others.  I am more grounded and stable than I was before and I feel far more purposeful.   And slowly I'm feeling a certain amount of pride in what I'm trying to do.  I even cry during My Way.  All of this brings a form of happiness, but not as I would have defined it before.

As I write, shafts of sunlight escape the cloud and bathe the room with light.  For a few moments I am typing with sunshine on my back.  Happiness feels like that.  Temporary, welcome, but out of my control.


Monday, 6 September 2010

The Real 'Secret'

At the weekend, Oliver Burkeman highlighted the exciting sequel to 'The Secret' - 'The Power'.

Not, unfortunately, a homage to the legendary Phil 'The Power' Taylor but instead just some more bollocks on the magentic attraction of positive thinking etc etc. 

The trouble is, this rubbish is easy to ridicule but the essential idea - that we can alter the content of our thoughts - has widespread following.

Career coaches are particularly guilty.  They sell the promise that you too can discover your 'real' values and strengths, identify a 'true vocation' and that following a life of meaning and purpose will make you happier.  Positive Psychology has carried this meme far into our brains.

Don't get me wrong; strengths, values, meaning and purpose are all essential ideas to explore as part of career change.  But seeing them as a means of achieving happiness is a dangerous myth.

Wanting to be happier in life sounds seductively achievable.  All we need to do is feel happy thoughts more often, and negative thoughts less often.  In practice, this must mean replacing negative thoughts with happy ones, and avoiding situations that give rise to negative feelings.

This would be fine, except for the rather inconvenient evidence that suggests trying to control the content of our thoughts DOES NOT WORK.  Avoiding negative thoughts is likely to increase the strength and frequency of those thoughts.  And avoiding situations which give rise to negative thoughts leads to experiential avoidance - a strategy that  is associated with depression and other mental health problems. 

When faced with a career choice we want to feel happier and have more meaning in our lives.  But ironically, life juxtaposes the two to confuse us.  Pursuing a more meaningful course of action is likely to give rise to negative feelings, at least in the short term.  But what you get in return is a life in which you can look yourself in the eye, and do the things that really matter.

And that's the real Secret.

The Secret:
if you really wish hard enough, it might just go away

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Walking away

Career change is ultimately about loss.  It's no surprise that the root meaning of  choice is 'to cut off' - we are cutting off the alternative.  In the context of career change, this often means cutting off part of our old lives in order to start anew.

Humans have to do this in many different areas of their lives, of course, and this poem, Walking Away by C Day-Lewis, describes this beautifully as he watches his son go into school.  I find it unbearably moving.

And I know in my own work with clients that the same words apply to career change too.  A process of letting go is needed for us to move forward, but its necessity makes it no less painful.

This is my testimony to those who are in this painful situation now.  If this is you, can you find the courage and compassion to let go of your past and embrace an uncertain future?

Can your love be found in the letting go?

Walking Away
This poem first appeared in the colleciton The Gate and Other Poems, published in 1962.  It is dedicated to Day-Lewis's first son, Sean.

It is eighteen years, almost to the day - 
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new ruled - since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I can never quite grasp to convey
About nature's give and take - the small, the scorching 
Ordeals which fire one's irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still.  Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show -
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Career Paralysis - 10 great free resources

 This is basically a list of brilliant articles, ideas, pamphlets and exercises about the process of career change.

As a regular reader of this blog, no doubt you will be shocked to learn that there are other, nearly as brilliant writers about career change out there.  Well, there are.  They are out there.  And they are nearly as brilliant.
  1. One such example is Roman KrZnaric.  Roman has the soul of a poet but the brain of a scientist.  Much of what he says has empirical evidence behind it, even if he doesn't reference it, and his brilliant pamphlet Work and the Art of Living can be downloaded here.
  2. Two of the best careers blog posts I've read are by Seth Godin here and by George Monbiot here oh and by Seth again here.  And the best careers speech ever is here and the best speech about using one's passion at work is here.
  3. In this article, Bill Taylor asks how much would it take for you to leave your job
  4. Next up is Barrie Hopson's excellent blog on portfolio careers.  This is an absolute treasure trove of information for those looking to diversify their income and Barrie's books are highly recommended.  (Though admittedly they aren't free).
  5. There are many different tests out there, but one of the best resources I've come across is this one - a kind of meaning or values generator.  Good fun!
  6. In terms of practicalities (i.e. getting a job as opposed to career direction), the Guardian's career website is as good as it gets.
  7. I think financial awareness is nearly as important as psychological awareness in career change.  This is a fun and creative response to the need to start saving, and this is the site to use if you'd prefer something a little more direct and to the point, and here is the FSA's site which is meant to be 'independent and jargon free'.  
  8. I think this is a great site for  tools, tests and resources to think creatively about your life, and by extension career.
  9. Dare I say it so is this...(shameless self promotion)
  10. I do like a good quote, so I recently blogged about the best inspirational career quotes.  Please do add your own and if you know of any great free resources, please do let me know!
Your career if you don't read my blog


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Career Paralysis - Further Reading

I wanted to provide a list of books that have helped and inspired me in my own career change and which I also now use in my day to day work with my career clients. 

Note that the first couple of books must be used with care - too many career coaches focus on self understanding as a kind of panacea - follow your strengths etc.  But this ignores context, and in real life clients need tools to help them cope with the messiness of real life.  That's what this list of books provides in abundance:

Best for getting organised: What Color Is Your Parachute? Dick Bolles

Close second: Finding Square Holes by Anita Houghton

Best for using non-logical approaches to getting unstuck: Getting Unstuck by Tim Butler.

Best for understanding strengths: Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.

Best for inspiration: How to Find the Work You Love by Laurence Boldt
 Best for understanding how we get stuck: The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

Best for getting into action: Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steve Hayes and Spencer Smith.

Best for understanding cognitive biases: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

Best antidote to 'thinking happy' (but still remaining positive): Curiosity by Todd Kashdan.


HBR Interview - Creativity and Dance

As part of my research into creativity and career change I came across this brilliant interview with choereographer Mark Morris.


Q: What do you think accounts for your company's success?

A: I think the reason we are so popular with audiences is we don't lie or bluster. We don't inflate ourselves. The dancers dance honestly—that's the best thing I can say about them. Indeed, one of the things I scream about the most is "fake, fake, fake," or "chicken, chicken, chicken." I want the dancers to reach a level of authenticity that is surprising—not only to audiences but also to themselves. In the end, we have to mean what we're doing or else it's all worthless.

That's the point about genius, really. It involves both skill and honesty. Consider Maria Callas, whom we all loved and adored even though she was singing so horribly flat half the time. Yet she had this terrific authenticity. Horowitz made lots of mistakes playing the piano, but it worked because it's not about playing note perfect. That doesn't mean that you have to be touchingly imperfect to be a genius, but you do have to be real. And that's the essence of my company: We are real people who are incredibly skilled.


Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Creativity in practice

A classic mistake in career decision making make is to take a possible new career - let's say psychology - and then reject it because we don't like  the psychology-related job ads we read in the paper.

Because we generally know what we don't like, but are far less clear about what we do like, the new option is easily discounted because it ticks more negative boxes than positive.  As Dan Gilbert argues, we don't compare the past with future  possibility on equal terms.

This was the mistake made by yours truly about 6 years ago.  It cost me a year of inaction and further pointless deliberation. 

However, if I had been willing to sit with my interest in psychology, imagine its possibilities, and not worry so much about my thoughts at the time (i.e. 'this is a waste of time!') then I could have set off on my path earlier.  That's time I'll never get back.

If you're in this position, can you notice the urge to get rid of options and to close down creative thought?  Could you be willing to go deeper into an option you're not sure about?   Play with it?  Cross it with something else (try my Creative Problem Solving booklet for ideas here).  Can you try inventing a story that includes the option?  Or imagine yourself at 80 having tried at it and succeeded?

As this fascinating study shows, thinking from these perspectives allows self understanding to develop at a more abstract level. 

Your mind won't enjoy it - it will protest this is a waste of time and you should be analysing your options.  But if your mind really knew best then you wound't be looking to change career.


Willingness and creativity

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that refers to our tendency to "see an object only in the way it is traditionally used'.

This bias has been shown to apply to our own identities, hence our tendency to think that we can only do what we've always done.  Not a great strategy when what we've always done has made us miserable...

To offset functional fixedness, career change must involve a creative process.  We need to sneak up on the mind to think anew about our options.

Many people think of creativity as a skill, or a talent.   Yet creativity is really neither - it is a choice.  At the heart of this choice is a willingness to sit with ambiguity and imperfection.   Although creativity often sounds sexy and analysis dull, in reality our mind far prefers analysis. It craves certainty. 

Yet if we reach for certainty too early,  we terminate a conversation with ourselves just at the point when it's getting interesting.