Beyond Treachery

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.

And I do.

Crystallised Fruits

A rather marvellous angle on life came by email a few weeks ago…

Click image for original article

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.”

But why?

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 the waning of 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 the article 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 smarter focus for the second half of one’s working (and actual) life is ‘crystallised intelligence’:

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 the answer to the later career – let go of being the sharpest, smartest and fastest; and develop wisdom instead.

Brooks continues:

The antidote to worldly temptations is Vanaprastha 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.

And how?

Vanaprastha is 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.

As in:

“He was kind and deeply spiritual”

not 

“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 the third phase of lifeI’ve made some progress.

In my leaving dos from the end of 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.

I’m now happy to turn the page.

FIDO

I recommended them to a work colleague as ‘among the very best £4s I’ve ever spent’; all round top banana Chris Croft’s ‘Assertiveness MP3s‘ are pure gold.

So I wrote to Chris to tell him:

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.

Not the famous Italian dog but the simple acronym:

Forget It and Drive On.

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!

P.S.

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.”

Of Kings

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.

Cathedral or Cave II

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:

Cathedral or Cave?

I imagine Aristotle, like the Acropolis, as more Cathedral. The reclusive poet Emily Dickinson would be more cave. Montaigne, perhaps old Paris; earthy rumbustious streets and deep reflective catacombs. 

I’ve been toying with Nietzsche’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 with lamp posts and squat schoolhouses, so I suppose you never really know what you might build one brick at a time.

Pieper on Prudence

Josef Pieper turns out to be my kind of ethicist: straightforward, practical and direct.

What he sets out on ‘prudence’ (aka Thomas Aquinas’s prudentia or ‘practical wisdom’) chimes entirely with what I think ‘good’ looks like in working life.

Here’s what Pieper has to say:

The first prerequisite for the perfection of “prudence” is providentia, foresight.

By this is meant the capacity to estimate, with a sure instinct for the future, whether a particular action will lead to the realization of the goal.

But foresight is often something you ‘feel’ and can be hard to explain to young idealists, literal-minded folk and powerful ideologues.

A reasonable sense of what will work (and won’t) is like a sixth sense. It’s not about ease or difficulty; it’s a ‘felt sense’ of a workable path through.

As Pieper points out:

At this point the element of uncertainty and risk in every moral decision comes to light.

In the decisions of which by their very nature prudence is concerned; with things concrete, contingent, and future (singularia, contingentia, futura) there cannot be that certainty which is possible in a theoretical conclusion.

Then he quotes Thomas Aquinas.

“Non potest certitudo prudentiae tanta esse quod omnino solicitudo tollatur.”

The certitude of prudence cannot be so great as completely to remove all anxiety.

As Pieper rightly says:

A profound statement, this!

He goes on:

Man, then, when he comes to a decision, cannot ever be sufficiently prescient nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty.

If he waited for that, he would never come to a decision; he would remain in a state of inconclusiveness.

The combination of a ‘felt sense’, the difficulty of unpacking the many factors and years of experience which underpin it – and the inevitable risk it may not turn out to be right – is what prudentia feels like, I believe.

So what to do? Pieper concludes:

The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.

And, after all, as a man of faith Pieper suggests hope springs eternal:

The decisions of prudence receive “practical” assurance and reinforcement from several sources:

  • from the experience of life as it has been lived;
  • from the alertness and healthiness of the instinctive capacity for evaluation;
  • and from the daring and humble hope that the paths to man’s genuine goals cannot be closed to him.

In sum, Pieper makes a strong case for: thought, listening to your instincts and to others, timely action, accepting anxiety – and the ‘daring and humble’ hopefulness of pursuing genuine goals.

Prudentia is not a bad guide for working and family life.

Heat and Pain

Much disquiet at work this week, some of it highly practical; more of it to do with how people are feeling.

My contribution was to characterise my job as seeking and feeling operational ‘heat and pain’ and checking in with everyone that we think it’s proportionate and justified.

If all you do is react to ‘heat and pain’ you never change anything. But if you create too much of it – or create it needlessly – you can do a lot of damage and stop helpful progress dead in its tracks.

In one exchange I pointed out to someone the importance of ‘bedside manner’… Telling someone the facts of how badly broken their leg is – and how you’re going to screw bolts into it in five places – may have seemed to them the most important thing… but people also want you to rub their hand and show them you care.

In the big rooms, where ‘big people’ talk ‘big decisions’, all to often any sense of how it ‘feels’ and what ‘heat and pain’ it’s causing is absent.

I felt out, explained to people and fixed a lot of heat and pain this week – especially with a big heave on Friday. I’ll fix some more next week.

That’s the job.

Jar Mitzvahs

Knitting together from several sources: it’s well worth celebrating life’s small moments of joy…

A friend of Tim Ferriss recommends a ‘Jar of Awesome’ – a Mason Jar (as above) into which everyone in the family drops little paper slips, to celebrate small happinesses…

Not sure that would work in our house. I think we’d be arguing with each other and scrumpling up each other’s slips of paper in no time.

Plus ‘Awesome’ may be overstating it. Small blessings, kindnesses and happy moments are more up my street.

As so often Chris Croft is a voice of practical good sense. He recommends a small notebook to jot down happy moments through the day; then recap and write three more at bedtime.

So I’ve now got a list on my iPhone titled ‘Jar Mitzvahs’, my virtual jar-cum-notebook of daily moments, and memories, and things to be thankful for.

And as Chris Croft suggests I’ve found some recurring themes…

…cooking, activities with the kids, chucking stuff for the dog to fetch, sunshine. But there are also a few I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t written them down… kind words, being appreciated and just rubbing along with folk at work.

Happiness isn’t that complicated; it breaks out every time you clear the clouds from your head.

Brevity

brɛvɪti – noun

1. Concise and exact use of words in writing or speech.

(Concision, succinctness, economy of language, shortness, briefness, pithiness, incisiveness, crispness, compactness, compression.)

2. Shortness of time.

(Transience, transitoriness, ephemerality, impermanence; e.g. “the brevity of human life.”)

As we process through life, there is ever more we have seen; and a good deal more we have done. It’s easy to forget how much.

Indeed there’s good evidence that’s why older people struggle to remember things – not necessarily cognitive decline; just more to sift through in the back catalogue of the mind.

Still, looking at someone’s CV the other day, I was in sympathy with Marcus Aurelius’ advice:

Don’t be a person of too many words and too many deeds….

The encapsulation of anything – and certainly a person’s CV – should be readily achievable in no more than two pages.

And reflecting on life with perhaps my finest friend this week, Marcus Aurelius’s fuller advice is also well put:

“Don’t act grudgingly, selfishly, without due diligence, or to be a contrarian. Don’t overdress your thought in fine language. Don’t be a person of too many words and too many deeds…. Be cheerful, not wanting outside help or the relief others might bring. A person needs to stand on their own, not be propped up.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 3.5

Enough said.

Hard Work

I’ve not been enjoying work recently; but it could be worse…

Here are some stats on how the rest of the British workforce feels about the daily grind:

According to research by YouGov, 37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. Half (50%) say their job is meaningful, and 13% are unsure.

At least I get over this hurdle. Stuff I do, and make possible, does make a difference to thousands of people; and potentially to many many more. I tick this box.

Men (42%) are more likely to say their jobs are meaningless than women (32%).

In a week where we learned men are invariably better paid, why are men more gloomy? The hormones we have, the expectations society sets or the jobs we disproportionately do?

Whatever the causes, I’m on the right side of this one too.

Despite this, most people with ‘meaningless’ jobs say it’s unlikely they will change jobs in the next 12 months (53%, compared to 35% who say they might change jobs).

I’m in the 35% here. Never say never, I say…

I’ve moved sectors, countries and jobs plenty of times; so although the grass is usually no greener, it always pays to keep your feelers out – if only to feel you have options and skills people want.

The survey also asked if British workers find their jobs personally fulfilling, and a similar portion (33%) say they do not. 63% say their job is fulfilling, although only 18% say it is very fulfilling.

I scrape into the 63% here – my work is not very fulfilling, nor does it feel like the very best use of who I am and the skills I have; but hey you have to get over yourself a bit don’t you. As my son once famously said “it’s not all about you Dad.” Cheeky monkey.

As for explaining myself to others…

Many introductions at social occasions begin with a conversation about work, but only 49% of British workers say they’d be proud to tell someone about what they do when meeting for the first time. 8% say they’d even be embarrassed, 41% say neither.

…I usually start embarrassed but end up more proud. Education is the Lord’s work; even if academia can be a fractious and frustrating place.

Compared to many, I’ve not got that much to complain about. It helps to be reminded of that by the travails of others.