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!


I read a fascinating article this week which gives the theoretical underpinnings – and even an equation – to make transparent why we are opaque.

Indirectness, innuendo, plausible deniability and nuance are all tricks of language we learn. But on the face of it they seem inefficient, unclear and downright unprofessional.

I’ve often felt put out – particularly at work – when people pull me up and say ‘what exactly do you mean’, or ‘what exactly are you suggesting?’ I sometimes find these sorts of questions irritating – even scalding. When the topic is complex or involves others, being suddenly pulled up can leave me feeling undermined, impugned or misunderstood. What’s going in feels far worse than a simple accusation of imprecision or rambling. Now I know why.

Steven Pinker of Harvard explains it all very straightforwardly in his 2007 paper ‘The logic of indirect speech’ which is vividly brought to life in an RSAnimation. Paraphrased in a [I admit large] nutshell, he writes:

Humans employ several, mutually incompatible, modes of cooperation and, as a result, are extremely touchy about their relationships. With some (typically family, lovers, and friends), they freely share and do favours; with others, they jockey for dominance; with still others, they trade goods and favours.

The ‘dominance’ relationship is governed by the ethos, “Don’t mess with me.” It has a basis in the dominance hierarchies common in the animal kingdom, although in humans, it is based not just on brawn or seniority but on social recognition: how much others are willing to defer to you.

The ‘communality’ relationship conforms to the ethos, “What’s mine is thine; what’s thine is mine.” It naturally arises among kin bound by shared genes, within monogamous pair-bonds, bound by their shared children and by close friends and allies bound by shared interests. It can be extended to others by nonverbal cues of solidarity such as physical contact, communal meals, and shared experiences.

The ‘reciprocity’ relationship obeys the ethos, “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” It has an evolutionary basis in reciprocal altruism. It is usually signaled by fair exchanges or division into equal portions but, unlike the other two relationship types, can be negotiated by people via explicit verbal contracts.

People distinguish these relationships sharply, and when one person breaches the logic of a relationship with another, they both suffer an emotional cost. Nonetheless, humans often have to risk these breaches to get on with the business of life, and they often use language to do so. In exploring the boundaries of relationship types, humans anticipate what other humans think about the relationship: what the other party in the relationship thinks; what any gossipers think; and what the other party thinks about what they think about what the other party thinks about what they think, and so on.

The need to preserve our relationships while transacting the business of our lives can thus explain humans’ tendency to fill their lives with innuendo, hypocrisy, and taboo.

So now I understand why I sometimes say things in less than transparent ways at work – and feel put out when people don’t get my subtle drift. There’s always a complex interplay of ‘dominance’, ‘communality’ and ‘reciprocity’ in the workplace. It’s the most obvious place where the constantly shifting balance of cooperation and competition between humans means clarity isn’t always appropriate, realistic or welcome.

As Pinker shows, human relations are too just complex for plain speaking, sometimes we have to take the indirect route.