No Worries

I took the redoubtable Chris Croft up on his offer of a ‘Year of Happiness’ emails over Christmas. I told a friend, and she did the same.

She emailed me last week as below:

This made me smile – in truth 2020 has been a car-crash from start to finish. And where we are now: locked down and cooped-up – as the economy stops dead and we improvise field hospitals – is simply incredible.

Chris’s advice in this week’s happiness email is to ‘worry less’. For once I very nearly didn’t bother to read on.

But as always he has a point; and a practical suggestion… make a list.

To start with, make a list all of your worries. There’s something very therapeutic about writing things down, because it gives you permission to get them out of your brain, and that takes them further away from you, where they seem less important, and more easy to work on and to kill them off.

Usually, my list of worries would be the same somewhat improbable ‘sum of all fears’ one it’s always been:

  • Losing my job;
  • Not having enough money;
  • Having to sell the house;
  • The whole family confronting me and saying: ‘Dad, you’ve completely failed us.’

Thanks to Coronavirus though these are bang on the £££money – compounded by the very real fear of the lack of it.

But now I can add:

  • Facing a riot/riots at work;
  • Facing a riot in our street;
  • Having to stop paying people;
  • Having to furlough people (whole new worry!);
  • Having to make people redundant;
  • Having to hold onto people’s money who want it back;
  • Having to pay other people for things we are no longer sure we can afford;
  • Loved ones getting ill;
  • Running out of food;
  • Not being allowed out to walk the dog;
  • There never being any jobs of the sort I do ever again
  • My pension disappearing so I can never escape work I hate.

That about captures it! A proper list of worries.

So what to do? Paraphrasing Chris:

But what if the worry really is about something serious? What can you do about that? And the answer is nothing, there IS nothing you can do. Just tell yourself, it’s going to be fine. Keep saying it till you believe it, and finally, put it into context, it’s not the end of the world if it happens.

Unless of course it is… But I was helped today by some useful historical context; reminded of my old friend Michel de Montaigne by an article in Philosophy Now on his great friend Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563).

Montaigne’s Essays talk of French life in the sixteenth century, in a way which is accessible, modern and make it seem much like life today. More letters and fewer screens back then; but the same dramas of human affairs.

Except… they were in the middle of a bloody civil war of all-against-all.

As La Boétie describes it:

The result: “almost universal hate and malevolence between the king’s subjects, which in some places feeds secretly, in others declares itself more openly, but everywhere produces sad results… It divides citizens, neighbours, friends, parents, brothers, fathers and children, husband and wife.”

What followed was a series of massacres starting in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day, spreading to twelve other cities: Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, Orléans, Meaux, Angers, La Charité, Saumur, Gaillac and Troyes; and killing c10,000 people.

François Dubois (1529–1584) Wikipedia

The UK’s WWII ‘Blitz spirit’ and Dunkirk rhetoric is getting more than a bit tired, but I’d rather take Covid-19 than face religious slaughter.

My worries – like everyone’s – are very real; but pretty much every age which precedes us has known worse.

Onwards.

Enjoy what’s on your plate…

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!

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.”

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.

Happy Tracks

Sitting in the car singing along, I’m reminded to be eternally grateful for one of Chris Croft’s top tips from the Big Book of Happiness: get yourself a playlist of ‘Happy Tracks’.

Quite simply these are pieces of music which always make you happy. I’ve been building and editing mine for a year; and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

From Sinatra to Leadbelly, Beyoncé to Chumbawumba, Finlandia to Bach; I’ve got every genre. Some came from the radio, some from Spotify – one I was reminded of over a supermarket tannoy…

But wherever I am: standing crushed by the stairs on a fully loaded bus, schlepping across a windswept Waterloo Bridge or bowling along on a Santander bike; ‘Happy Tracks’ reliably puts me on top of the world.

Happy days.

Little Black Book

Among the numerous insights in Chris Croft’s excellent Happiness canon is this one – write everything down…

In my constant reinventions, modernisations and innovations I’d stopped doing this; at least with pen and paper. I gave up my A4 pad at work in the mid-2000s and gave up paper altogether a couple of years ago. But at what cost? According to Chris, a valuable contribution to productivity and achievement from my subconscious…

Although I’m not short of digital reminders, they’re somehow less real. Much like the realisation that reading on a Kindle leaves you with no sense of where you are in a book, similarly digital reminders feel more ethereal – they register in a different way than taking a pen and writing an action down.

Perhaps its a generational thing… albeit my Philosophy degree notes fitted comfortably in a co-op plastic bag, at least I’d written them down. I learned by writing. Perhaps I still do.

But the bigger idea is to harness the self-conscious; so the 95% of our brain which does stuff automatically without troubling us for permission, is harnessed to a purpose and to more purposeful action. And it works!

I’ve dug out the little Moleskine black books I used to use when travelling for work, plus a nice pen and I’m writing things down. Productivity up, fear of forgetting down and a reconnection with deeply human artefacts – an ink pen and nice little black book. Lovely.

Happy Christmas

I’ve had a Happy Christmas and a joyful start to 2017; not thanks to Santa, but a dead sensible British bloke who has written a book I’d recommend to anyone.

‘The Big Book of Happiness 87 Practical Ideas’ is a no-nonsense guide to how to live.

The point of it all, self limiting beliefs and behaviours, getting organised, writing down and pursuing your goals – and the value of dabbling in things. It’s a cracker.

If you read nothing else this year read this… If Aristotle were around today, it’s the book he’d write.