After years (and especially the last year) of constant emails, texts and troubles, this week the tone has changed.
My last two jobs have been all about problems: building failures, system crashes, unhappy people, complaints, campaigns, strikes and unreasonable and unrealistic senior folk.
As a result every time I put my phone down I was expecting another electric shock to come my way – via text, WhatsApp or email. Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon pick your hour, there’d be someone who’d find something to trouble me about.
Of course 2020 takes some beating for stuff going wrong (plus a tree smashed our studio and the dog has now died) but in truth, I’ve been suffering pretty much constant electric shocks from work since 2005.
So imagine my delight this (Saturday) morning to find no new problems in my inbox. No texts. No WhatsApps…
How long it will last who knows. But not having to look after the reputation of a national institution or the operations of a multi-campus university certainly made my day today.
I’m learning – both conceptually and practically – the difference between ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ at the moment.
Here’s the lowdown from my latest ‘lockdown’ Coursera course:
Conceptually, grit is distinct from resilience, a term defined differently across authors but generally accepted to be a multidimensional construct describing successful adaptation to overwhelming adversity and stress.
While popular measures of resilience often include perseverance as a component, they tend to include other elements as well, such as equanimity and a balanced perspective on life (e.g., Wagnild & Young, 1993).
Moreover, grit entails consistency of interests and goals over time, whereas the construct of resilience is agnostic on the stability of an individual’s interests.
Claire Robertson-Kraft, Angela Lee Duckworth – University of Pennsylvania
Based on this I’d say, of the two, I’m more ‘resilient’ than ‘gritty’. As per recently: ‘consistency of interests and goals over time’ hasn’t always been my approach to life. I’ve been more opportunistic – a polymath and latterly a specialist-generalist.
Perhaps that’s a function of the jobs I’ve had. I’ve been managing people who ‘know’ more that me since I was 22; and learnt, especially in Government in my mid-thirties, that there are all sorts of perspectives on what good looks like.
And it turns out grit isn’t so much about generic leadership or conscientiousness – it’s about sticking at one thing, a metier, a life project or a single-minded goal.
Grit is different than leadership potential insofar as the arenas in which gritty individuals demonstrate their stamina need not be those that entail organizing and managing other people.
Likewise, grit can be distinguished from conscientiousness, a multidimensional family of personality traits that encompasses perseverance, but also includes tendencies toward responsibility, self-control, orderliness, and traditionalism (Roberts, Chernyshenko, Stark, & Goldberg, 2005).
While correlated with conscientiousness, grit provides incremental predictive validity for achievement outcomes, particularly in settings of high challenge (Duckworth et al., 2007).
Claire Robertson-Kraft, Angela Lee Duckworth – University of Pennsylvania
Perhaps also I’ve just not found the goal that would justify the grit – the pearl that would tickle my oyster.
But talk of grit has helped me a bit this week. I can see I have several very ‘gritty’ people who work with me – who will stick at what we have on our plates come hell or high water.
And reflecting on ‘grit’ myself has helped me to apply resilience, leadership and conscientiousness to the task at hand – not just surviving but getting tough stuff done. And this put me in mind of a quote I received a couple of weeks ago:
“Maybe one day it will be cheering to remember even these things”
Aeneid bk. 1
So I decided to look up the passage from whence this came. Here is Wikipedia’s summary:
In the manner of Homer, the story proper begins in medias res (into the middle of things), with the Trojan fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, heading in the direction of Italy. The fleet, led by Aeneas, is on a voyage to find a second home. It has been foretold that in Italy he will give rise to a race both noble and courageous, a race which will become known to all nations.
Juno is wrathful, her favorite city, Carthage, will be destroyed by Aeneas’s descendants. Juno proceeds to Aeolus, King of the Winds, and asks that he release the winds to stir up a storm in exchange for a bribe; Deiopea, the loveliest of all her sea nymphs as a wife. Aeolus agrees to carry out Juno’s orders: “My task is to fulfill your commands”. The storm then devastates the fleet.
Neptune takes notice: although he himself is no friend of the Trojans, he is infuriated by Juno’s intrusion into his domain, and stills the winds and calms the waters. The fleet takes shelter on the coast of Africa, where Aeneas rouses the spirits of his men, reassuring them that they have been through worse situations before.
The key passage is this:
‘O friends, well, we were not unknown to trouble before. O you who’ve endured worse, the god will grant an end to this too.
Remember your courage and chase away gloomy fears: perhaps one day you’ll even delight in remembering this!
Through all these misfortunes, these dangerous times, we head for Latium, where the fates hold peaceful lives for us: there Troy’s kingdom can rise again. Endure, and preserve yourselves for happier days.’
That they have ‘endured worse’ before is a reminder of resilience. The bringer of hope is the promise of ‘happier days’. But the key to grit is the ‘consistency of interests and goals over time’: “to head for Latium where Troy’s kingdom can rise again.”
Still, perhaps the most telling line is the one that follows – where Aeneas’s ‘grit’ meets the challenge of ‘leadership’…
So his voice utters; and sick with the weight of care, he pretends hope, in his look, and stifles the pain deep in his heart.
As for Aeneas, the task at work right now is to ‘pretend hope’, ‘endure’ and ‘preserve ourselves for happier days’.
Barker tells us that Snyder defined the route to hope thus:
Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes… According to the theory, people who are hopeful believe they are good at generating goal thoughts, creating effective pathways leading to goal attainment, maintaining agency thoughts to provide enough motivation for the goal pursuit, and handling barriers that arise.
After all, as Barker reminds us, right now:
You’re dealing with life and death, financial concerns, issues of justice, and the safety and sanity of those you love. We have to get all that back on track in a world where clear answers are less than forthcoming. Human nature is on our side but we have plenty of work to do. Planet ain’t gonna fix itself; grab a shovel.
We don’t need wishes. We need active hope. The kind of hope that comes from a good plan, one that you are confident you can execute.
But in the endless weekly grind of ‘lockdown’ and Covid anxieties, it’s hard to come up with a plan that feels up to task. It’s all either too wishful or too timid. So what to do?
It starts with the goals:
Goals + Agency + Pathways = Hope
When you have goals (knowing what you want) and agency (the drive to get what you want) and pathways (the ability to generate methods to achieve what you want), you get hope.
With this type of hope, you don’t wish things will work out; you know deep down in your bones they will. You never doubt it.
I’ve always rather hated setting goals… what if I fail, is this the right thing to be shooting for, will it be worth it?
After all as Barker says:
Asking yourself “What are my goals?” is an excellent way to make your mind go blank.
He advises getting specific:
List out the major areas of your life (“career”, “family”, etc.) and beside each one simply write “I want…” Then finish the sentence. Be specific…
No, even more specific…
Sorry, still not specific enough…
Don’t say, “I need to find a new job,” say “I’m going to spend one hour every morning job-hunting on LinkedIn and reaching out to contacts.”
Snyder says you want “Specific, growth-seeking, performance-based, moderately-difficult goals.”
We’ve covered the ‘specific’ part. What’s a “growth-seeking” goal?
The right goals for ‘right now’ forget hope for the applause of others, and focus on personal growth.
Snyder’s research shows:
There is evidence that people who set validation-seeking goals are more prone to depressive episodes and self-esteem loss than those who set growth-seeking goals (Dykman, 1998). Validation-seeking goals are strivings to prove one’s self-worth, competence, and likeability through attainment of a goal. In contrast, growth-seeking goals are strivings to learn, grow, and improve.
I’m pretty good at action (agency) and finding routes forward (pathways) but Barker helped me realise I could do with a clearer more positive goal right now. Not least given my first thought was the one Barker advised against – get a new job!
So instead I’ve worked on some ‘growth’ goals:
Practice forgiving myself and others for what’s happening at work,
Be curious; practice and learn new psychological techniques through conflict at work,
Take breaks several times a day to breathe, reset and be ‘mindful’,
Keep learning Italian and French, and
Keep learning more about psychology and neuroscience.
I still think I should get a new job though!
However, as chance would have it an email from Chris Croft dropped into my inbox today; reminding me to find some things to enjoy at work too… So I’ll be looking for laughter where I can find it, and for the opportunity to write and create at work this week, among all the other difficult things.
Both Barker and Chris Croft reckon you can’t be happy or hopeful without some written goals. I’ve concluded, especially when everything is going wrong, they’re probably right.
A nice piece I read this morning in Philosophy Now, contains a quote which largely summarises my endeavours at work this week:
It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.
Ascribed to William of Ockham, who lived from c1285 to 1348 – it is as true in the modern world of work as it no doubt was in a medieval monastery.
Here’sa little of whatwriter Terence Green has to say about Ockham in Philosophy Now [which at just £17 for a year’s subscription would comfortably pass Green’s excise the excess Ockham test]:
William from Ockham (or Occam), an otherwise obscure village in Surrey, England, was the greatest philosopher of the fourteenth century. Known as the Doctor Invincibilis, he didn’t care whom he offended, and with his rough and ready style of argument, he offended plenty of people – which eventually got him into big trouble.
He became a Franciscan monk, an order famous for its commitment to poverty. But this meant he was at risk of having idle hands (one of poverty’s unacknowledged benefits), and so doing the Devil’s work. To avoid this calamity, he wrote widely on logic, physics, and theology.
Today he is most often associated with ‘Ockham’s Razor’, his idea that explanations should be as simple as possible; alternative formulations of this principle include ‘Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’ and ‘It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer’. Frankly, this is a good rule of thumb whatever you’re thinking about.
Having already been condemned as a heretic in 1326 for having unorthodox views, since he argued against Aquinas’s philosophy, he didn’t help himself when in 1328 he sided with those who argued against the Pope that Jesus and his disciples didn’t own any property. This was obviously a matter of considerable importance to the Pope, who owned a lot of property.
Seeing what was coming (imprisonment and execution), William took refuge with the Holy Roman Emperor in Bavaria. Excommunicated, but feeling a bit safer, he wrote polemics against the Pope’s claim to temporal power, thus emulating Dante.
The invincible teacher was finally beaten around 1347/48, probably by the Black Death. The Pope had died earlier, in 1334, still owning lots of property.
Plenty of bother at work this week; and I mean plenty… At one point on Friday afternoon I kinda wondered if it was a really well organised prank. People problems, building problems, legal problems, a bereavement – and a taxi outside waiting to take me for another meeting while I was supposed to instantly sort them.
But my new mantra got me through with at least half a smile:
Enjoy what’s on your plate
Once again I’ve turned to Chris Croft for inspiration here – if you look at things the right way they’re all potentially enjoyable…
Here’s what Chris has to say:
This month’s tip is taken from The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey which is a great little book, and only 50% about tennis. The bit that I really liked went as follows:
There are three reasons why you might play tennis (or do anything else in life)
Competition: to beat other people. But Tim Gallwey says that this is pointless because there will always be someone better than you so it’s a futile objective. Unless you pick weak opponents so you beat them, but what’s the point of that. So being competitive, trying to prove yourself by being better than other people, is not the right path to go down.
I completely agree with Chris and Tim on this – even in my sporting heyday I often couldn’t see the point. So what’s next?
Mastery: to master the game (or to master selling or management or traffic planning or heart surgery or physiotherapy or growing pumpkins or whatever it is that you do). Again, TG says this is futile – you’ll never master it. Ask anyone who plays golf! Though I did once meet Eddie Lockjaw Davis, one of the best jazz saxophonists in the world, and talk to him, and he said he’d mastered the sax and was bored with it. He’d taken up snooker at the age of 80 to give himself a challenge! So even if you did master it you’d be bored, but anyway, you won’t, (even Federer misses some shots) so forget that!
Mastery has always trapped me more than competition – secretly wanting to be really good (and maybe even wanting other people to see I was really good) at things. But as Chris has written very persuasively in his Big Book of Happiness the more you seek mastery the less you get back from it; it’s the law of diminishing marginal returns.
So what’s left? Just the good stuff:
Enjoyment: to get pleasure from the good shots, even if there aren’t very many! Who cares if you’re not the best, or that you aren’t perfect; every now and then you do a great shot, and that makes it all worthwhile. I must say that as I got better at squash (and I was quite good once!) I found it less and less enjoyable, because I took most shots for granted, I was just irritated by the really hard ones that I couldn’t quite get, on those key points in the game against really tough opponents. Gone were the fun knock-abouts with friends where we just took delight in hitting the ball.
To play for enjoyment means that your self-worth doesn’t come from being really good, or from being better than other people. Playing is not about self-worth at all. Your self worth should be totally independent of how good you are at tennis – or anything else. You can be rubbish at tennis and still be a good person.
And this was the sentence that helped me the most:
So the question is, could you get enjoyment from selling or managing or nursing or refusing planning permission or whatever your job involves?
I think this is the key to enjoying what’s on your plate; stop resenting it, or trying to master it and start enjoying it – even when you’re not very good at it.
As Chris says:
Many people’s plan is to just survive and get through the working days, to earn enough money to live, and then to get happiness from their time outside work – but of course, ideally we would get happiness from both parts of our lives. And happiness at work comes from having both a sense of achievement AND enjoying the process.
So I’m working on savouring my daily plateful of Brussels sprouts; and maybe even starting to like the taste!
An old friend sent me this card for my birthday last week; he asked me what I thought of it…
Here’s what I said:
Age and kindness will triumph over youth and ambition old friend.
I’m up to my neck in my new job, but strangely have come to realise I have lost my fear.
Many years ago you helped me; with an exercise which taught me I had treachery in me but also had compassion, care and kindness. You helped me tip over the right way (and I’ve seen so many who haven’t) and for that I owe you everything.
A rather marvellous angle on life came by email a few weeks ago…
I’ve shared it with half a dozen people; and in passing nice to remember (even as the world seems to barrel towards hell in a handcart) at no other time in history could you have got this knowledge – via a friend of a friend, across an ocean and the English Channel, and then on to me – in but a handful of days….
There is still much to be thankful for in the modern world.
So what’s the story?
In 1999, Carole Holahan and Charles Holahan, psychologists at the University of Texas, published an influential paper that looked at hundreds of older adults who early in life had been identified as highly gifted.
The Holahans’ conclusion: “Learning at a younger age of intellectual giftedness was related to … less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.”
The Holahans surmise that the children identified as gifted might have made intellectual ability more central to their self-appraisal, creating “unrealistic expectations for success” and causing them to fail to “take into account the many other life influences on success and recognition.”
And this is compounded by:
…abundant evidence [which] suggests that thewaningof ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically.
Just think of professional sportspeople….
Consider professional athletes, many of whom struggle profoundly after their sports career ends.
Tragic examples abound, involving depression, addiction, or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily.
This is nicely summed up by Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 driver:
“Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,”
This is sooo right…
“For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line.”
“His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead.”
“In this case, there will not be life after success.”
The author Arthur C Brooks calls this the ‘Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation’:
The idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige.
I think I suffered a bit of this in my current job… From self-appointed ‘brain of Britain’ to hard pressed General Factotum in one simple apparently duff career move.
Still the great advantage of life is time.
There’s lots of time if you use it well. Time to think and time to learn. I’ve learnt a lot; and finally – having left my rather unhappy job last week – I’ve had some time to think on a happy family holiday.
And I return to this article again…
One thing I’ve learned working at a top university, is everyone is constantly competing to demonstrate what thearticle says British psychologist Raymond Cattell defined (in the early 1940s) as fluid intelligence:
The ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower.
It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s.
Cattell’s work suggests a smarterfocusfor thesecond half of one’s working (and actual) life is ‘crystallisedintelligence’:
Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past.
Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom.
Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.
And herein lies theanswer to the later career – let go of being thesharpest, smartestand fastest; and develop wisdom instead.
The antidote to worldly temptations isVanaprastha whose name comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.”
This is the stage, usually starting around age 50, in which we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service, and wisdom.
This doesn’t mean that you need to stop working when you turn 50—something few people can afford to do—only that your life goals should adjust.
Vanaprasthais a time for study and training for the last stage of life,Sannyasa, which should be totally dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment.
As we age, we should resist the conventional lures of success in order to focus on more transcendentally important things.
This suggests leaving behind:
Résumé virtues which are professional and oriented toward earthly success. They require comparison with others.
And making the benchmark ‘Eulogy virtues’ which…
…are ethical and spiritual, and require no comparison.
Your eulogy virtues are what you would want people to talk about at your funeral.
“He was kind and deeply spiritual”
“He made senior vice president at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles“
And if this is the goal of thethirdphase of life – I’ve made some progress.
In my leaving dos from the endof the 1990s through the 2000s people might well have said: ‘He made Director at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles.’
But at my most recent leaving do last Thursday, I signed off by thanking a wonderfully diverse audience (which wholly represented the community I am proud to have been part of) for helping me to become: “a kinder, gentler and better person.”
And thanks to them; I have.
These are the crystallised fruits of the challenging but ultimately rewarding last three and a half years.
At my grand age it’s kind of embarrassing to lack the conceptual apparatus to fix one of your deep-seated weaknesses; but as you say these things are improved by understanding, application, repetition and changing your internal narratives. Your Assertiveness tape is a revelation! Thank you for what you do Chris – it’s terrific.
He kindly wrote back
What a great message – thanks John!
One of Chris’s top tips is when you get something wrong or make a mistake (which we all do, all the time) then FIDO is your new best friend.
As Chris himself points out, ‘Learn from it’ might be better than ‘Forget it’ but LIDO isn’t quite as good as FIDO. For my part I thought I might like ‘Move On’ more than ‘Drive On’ – a bit less ‘bulldozing’ – but LIMO is hopeless…
But the pièce de résistance fell into place this week, thanks to my belated opening of a Christmas gift from a very great friend…
It’s a bit sweary as the title suggests, but Mark Manson is certainly onto something… in a nutshell if we give a f#ck about too many things then we’re not giving enough of a f#ck about the things that matter. Simple.
So now, I have the version of FIDO which works for me. Forget ‘learning from it’ – I think about stuff to much already… The mongrel version of FIDO which has become my trusty companion this week, is the one which plays to my Northern roots and stops rumination dead in its tracks:
F#ck It and Drive On.
Conceptually nudging ‘drive’ into the cheery form of ‘barrelling’ or ‘bowling along’ through life – it’s working like a charm!
Here are some of Chris’s very handy ‘mantras’ which he sent through last month:
“During my assertiveness training day I have various catch-phrases, or mantras, and I hope that people will pick up on at least one of them and keep it in mind when they are dealing with difficult situations. Here is a list of all of the ones that I personally use (with brief explanations):
“Nobody can push me into the ‘not OK’ box”
We all have a tendency to move from being OK about ourselves to being not OK, and if you are not OK about yourself then you will find it more difficult to interact productively with others. Being OK doesn’t mean “better than the other person” – just OK with yourself. And other people will sometimes try to push you into the not OK box, when they try to make you feel guilty or accuse you of being selfish when you are standing up for yourself and your own rights. Or if you’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. And it’s not up to anyone else to decide whether you are a good person, it’s up to you.
“We teach people how to treat us”
If you let people treat you badly they will keep on doing it. And even in small cases, for example the boss who can’t delegate or who solves people’s problems for them, will be brought more and more problems to solve. So if you keep on being treated badly, especially if it’s by more than one person, then ask yourself if there is something you are doing to encourage them.
“It’s never too late to go back”
If you are taken by surprise, maybe by a verbal attack or perhaps a request for something, and you give in, and you are kicking yourself afterwards thining “I should never agreed to that” or “I should never have let him get away with that” or “I know what I should have said, if only I’d been a bit quicker” then remember, you can always go back and say “I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, and I’m not happy with it / I’m going to change my mind etc”. It’s great to know that you have as long as you need in order to think of a suitable reply.
“I don’t have to justify how I feel”
I joke that I regret teaching my wife this one, but the truth is that I think everyone should use this phrase. If you don’t want to do something and you are being pressure with “But why not??” then this can be a good response. You are entitled to your feelings, and that’s an end to it.”
Man or woman, royal or republican, political or organisational – anyone who leads or seeks to should reflect on this…
Josef Pieper once again makes the truth limpid – in order for there to be justice, there must be authority; but when that authority is vested in a person, if they are bad there is nothing that can stop injustice.
This perhaps explains the state of the world today – there aren’t too many ‘just rulers’ about…
Of course it’s not easy:
The lesson here is: political nous and worldly wisdom i.e. ‘prudentia‘ and ‘temperantia‘ (self management) might get you there; but if you take a position of responsibility ‘guarding justice’ is your job.
Whew, I’ve been hard at it recently. And as so often: intractable problems, helping people who are struggling and taking on more than I should; all of which have taken their toll.
But also – as increasingly often these last ten years – I’ve caught myself just in time…
Flagging, tired and increasingly irascible, I had the good sense to book this Friday off and as I texted to a great friend, here’s what I did with it:
For my part I walked the hound and then slept from 9.30am to 11.40am with the dog by my side, and then again from 2.30pm to 5.50pm similarly. I feel a deep basin of fatigue has been considerably drained. My biggest problem in life has always been that I need more sleep than most people.
I also coughed the other truth about myself last weekend – I like people; but they tire me out. And very very helpfully, I have been excused some social outings subsequently.
Which reminded me of this – written eight years ago…
I’m more cave than cathedral I increasingly think. I need more sleep and more time alone than most people:
I imagine Aristotle, like the Acropolis, as more Cathedral. The reclusive poetEmily Dickinsonwould be more cave.Montaigne, perhaps old Paris; earthy rumbustious streets and deep reflective catacombs.
I’ve been toying withNietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed in the real world or forcibly turned in.
For him, we create a complex inner life in proportion to the scale of our drive we cannot express externally. It’s an interesting thought.
Complex interesting people tend to have a good deal of both – rich inner lives and fulfilling outer ones. But not always. Nietzsche credits civilisation with curbing the capacity to express our animal instincts externally – driving them inwards. This unexpressed energy drives our inner lives – our conscience, guilt and creativity.
I think regularly about the balance of inner and external. I don’t feel I have the ‘will to power’ for a full ‘Cathedral’ in the external world. Too much competition, conflict, one-upmanship and strife in seeking grandeur. I fear I’d lose my health, precious time with my family and my happiness if I allowed a ‘grand projet’ or personal aggrandisement to consume me.
Talking to a friend – who is a decade older than me – this week, I felt a bit guilty. He has real fire in his belly for systemic reform, transformational change and the great debates of public policy. I said I’m just not attracted to any of that right now.
We talked about using our talents and our responsibility to improve the lot of others…
He started his career as a lone residential social worker – on a tough housing estate. Beer bottles bounced off the cage that surrounded his outpost all night.
That’s where his fire still comes from. It drives him to want to improve the scaffolding and superstructure of the nation’s health and social care system.
I don’t have that. I’m more a family chapel with a good sized intellectual cellar. My projects are more local and small scale – my family, the people around me.
But never say never. The world is an unpredictable place.Gaudi started withlamp postsandsquat schoolhouses, so I suppose you never really know what you might build one brick at a time.