Playing to win

I’ve been thinking recently about how to ‘be’ at work. Not everything – or everyone – is easy to get along with. Working life has many pressures and frustrations. I’ve often worked too long or too hard in my working life and sometimes got cross, spiky and brittle because of it. So looking after myself better has been part of learning to survive in bigger jobs. But surviving isn’t good enough. Thriving is what I’m after.

One potential solution to overstretch and indignity is Stoicism. It’s certainly better than ‘passive aggression’, or another past favourite of mine ‘victim behaviour’. Stoicism gives you a handy detachment and a heightened ability to endure and ‘not take things personally’. That’s a good ingredient to have in my mix, but it’s not in itself very attractive – enduring is not leading.

So how about ‘attracting’. On my better days I can definitely attract people with concepts and ideas. On my very best days I can stir a bit of passion too. But mostly I’ve been reticent to put myself at the centre of situations or ‘put my chair in the centre of the room’ as a friend of mine puts it. Partly this is fear of everyone looking at me. Partly this is the fear of friends ‘jeering’. Not much of my attraction to attraction is narcissism, but I do like to be liked.

I was reading bits of the Illiad and Odyssey last night and seeing what Achilles would have done. Achilles is the ultimate action hero. In modern managementspeak he’d be a strong ‘shaper’ and ‘personal performer’. He was passionate and incredibly driven, but he was also selfish, undermining and reckless. He was playing for himself not for the team. But he was a hero and he did make and change history.

As Odysseus said to the ghost of Achilles when he encountered him in Hades:

“There is not a man in the world more blessed than you – there never has been, never will be one. Time was, when you were alive, we honoured you as a god, and now down here I see you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”

But in return Achilles protested:

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive – than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

Achilles was a great talent, but he played for himself. He burned brightly, briefly. Then he was spent, and died carrying regret. Had he been a Stoic he would never have risen to the anger and fury which propelled him into history. But would he have been more contented in Hades had he stuck around and achieved more with – and for – others?

I will read more about Odysseus – or Ulysees. On first glance, he has a winning combination of courage, guile, teamwork and sustained leadership under pressure. He played to win for the team and the cause, not just for himself.

I re-read a useful piece of research today, which concluded:

“Leaders would do well to use the energy they have to attract people to the vision and purpose of the organisation, rather than themselves. The challenge is to have the organisation’s purpose ‘in your bones’.”

This crystallises the advice I’ve been following recently to consciously put the organisation’s “cause” at the heart of my choices and narrative. I’ve already found it gives me more courage and conviction to do the right things.

‘Playing to win’ means not being reckless, selfish, impatient, kamikaze, intemperate, self-indulgent, defensive or fearful. It means constantly re-focusing myself and those around me on doing better what everyone who works here – on our best days – believes in.

Why? Because what we do really does change people’s lives. And what I do has and can change the organisation greatly. So unlike Achilles, I should use that power for good not for myself.

Indignity

Life is full of indignities, small and large. I, like most people, am easily persuaded that life’s indignities have been targeted at me by some malign intent. Human beings are programmed to look for causation. It’s a key survival skill. The moment you move beyond blind instinct, learning from your mistakes and finding patterns and causes is vital. 

It is said that the first religions – pan theistic, animist and shamanic all came from the need for hunter-gatherers and early nomads to find some answer, or cause, for the indignities of storm, drought, disease and death that pre-scientific man had no other method to understand or intellectually control.

These gods brought good, but more often bad. They were quixotic and quick to anger and required regular appeasement and speaking in tongues to commune with and placate. 

Ancient philosophers were not immune to the gods whims. They always paid them homage. But they tended to live in temperate latitudes – comparatively benign environments – which left some time for building civilisations and thinking. 

I’ve recently started reading Epictetus, a famous stoic philosopher from the 2nd century AD. It seems to me he offers a window into an interesting period between ancient philosophy and organised monotheistic congregational religion. 

I’ve not read enough to be sure, but my Bayesian brain guesses that his stoicism is a response to the superficially civilised but dangerously unpredictable indignities of Roman society – from slavery to summary justice.

His stoic answer seems to be to develop a detachment which has much to commend it in ‘coping with the loss of an earthenware pot’ or being ‘splashed and jostled at the bathhouse’. But inviting us to train ourselves to ‘feel nothing’ at the loss of a wife or child (as they are human and death is inevitable) feels plain wrong. For Epictetus the sole true value is our moral character. And all else – including people – are as Oliver Reed said in Gladiator simply ‘shadows and dust’.

I like Epictetus’s advice to recognise what you control and don’t, what you assume and what is real, what is intended and what is accident. His tip to take a moment to reflect before reacting is wise too. But I’m with Aristotle not Epictetus on people we love and the importance of friends.

One such sent me a piece of research which suggests that the value of friendship doesn’t just underpin Aristotle’s vision of happiness, but also the happiness that organised religions bring:

“It is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” according to sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier” his study shows.

So I go with Aristotle and the big congregational religions, not Epictetus on friends. Friends and social ties are the route to human happiness and eudaimonia. Avoiding them isn’t. 

You can’t control friends. As Epictetus rightly points out ‘the jeering of friends’ often accompanies any attempt at self improvement. There’s no doubt that friends can hurt you, and heap indignity on you too. But you can’t live happily without Friends.

Hospital

I went to hospital on Monday to see a consultant to check up on the moles I’ve been worrying about. Here’s what I tapped out on my iPhone as I sat waiting to go in:

Hospital

It scares the living sh1t out of me. Just walking here brings deep anxiety to the surface. My heart rate is up, I’m conscious of my chest.

We don’t see illness and death unless we go looking for it these days, but here it all is. Everyone you look at you don’t know if they’re losing their life or here to save them. Especially the older people.

The NHS is fantastic, but support staff sometimes look right through you. Two members of staff are currently hailing each other down the length of a corridor in front of me, while I sit here with several others wondering whether fate has something lethal, painful or banal in store.

I will likely end my life in one of these places. And in this very hospital we witnessed the start of life too – my son was born here. But this hospital despite its cleanliness and modernity reeks more of entropy, human decline and infirmity than life.

It brings back my melanoma which is why I am here. I don’t want to die here, but maybe I will.

It turned out to be banal. That’s the weird thing about health. Like life, you take it for granted for much of your life, although you know you shouldn’t. But also, like life, you have to take it for granted – to some extent – otherwise you don’t make the best of it.

In the space of five minutes lethal turns to banal and in the space of five days fear to insouciance. I’m glad it’s this way round. But the useful goad to action, which having melanoma on my mind has been, is something I now need to find from a happier more positive place.

Reading my old friend Aristotle again sat on a tube ride yesterday – and talking to half a dozen different really thought-provoking people this week – I have some emerging ideas…

Mourning

It has been a sad week for me. We took our trusty hound to be put to sleep on Tuesday. A bad business. He really was on his last legs with a huge tumour on his side, but it’s a horrible thing to have to go and do and will haunt me for a long time.

What shocked me was feeling the life go out of him. I was holding his head and his breathing became shallower, his nostrils flared progressively less and the tension went from his neck. Then I let go and saw him twitch a little, his once powerful shoulders suddenly sunken and then expected him to turn his head to look at me – perhaps accusingly.

But instead his eyes were fixed ahead and his muzzle rested on the floor. My partner wanted to close his eyes, but couldn’t and I saw his lower eyelid livid red and starting to sag. And I realised he was definitively gone.

Entropy, whichever law of thermodynamics, blind watchmakers, all hadn’t prepared me to see the organising energy which is life simply disappear in front of my eyes. He went from faithful companion, pain in the ass, geriatric incontinent and once proud rosette and race winner to a heap of skin, bone, microbes and sagging eyelid.

Whatever else life is, it is the most extraordinary force. We all take it for granted and seldom actually see it disappear in front of us in modern life. It’s the first time I’ve actually been with a large living thing when it died. I dread being with a human at their end but recognise one day I likely will.

I was shocked and chastened by seeing the very end of a life – 6 stone in weight, 3.5 feet high, 6 feet sprawled, 45 mph cruising speed, a big powerful, dopey, loveable, furry, white socked, bad breathed, friendly to everyone, cat chasing, stair jumping, bed stealing, door greeting, under your feet getting, leaning on you when stroked, tiger striped ex-racing Greyhound.

He’s chasing bunnies again in his dreams and is at rest. It’s a stark reminder for me though of how fragile, precious and extraordinary simply being alive actually is. And I understand now, perhaps for the first time, what mourning means.

Heart

With a heavy heart my partner and I agreed today that we would have our old retired racing greyhound put to sleep next Tuesday morning. He has a tumour which has grown to the size of a half football on his side which hasn’t bothered him much until now. But he’s in pain today, I can see it.

I spent the day with my son, who’s very small, but quite wise for one so little. We took a bus, a train, a boat and a taxi and then went out for a scoot together. Two nights ago he asked me if I would die. I didn’t really know what to say. I put my hand on his chest and said I will live a long long time and that we all live on through the people we love. His hand rested on top of mine sandwiching my hand on top of his little pumping heart. Since then he’s raised the topic of dying several times with me. Tonight we decided we would both live forever and this made him happy. I can save the truth for a bit.

I was talking on Friday to a friend who lost his father quite quickly and painfully. His demise hadn’t been a good one – messed about and messed up by the health service. His mother has developed a heart condition in the process. This got us talking about cardiac coherence – a concept I picked up in David Servan-Schreiber’s book Healing without Freud or Prozac. Cardiac coherence is when the physiological systems which accelerate your heart are perfectly balanced with those which brake it – you are in balance and your immune system is fully optimized.

He writes about a boy and his dog who happened by his lab and for fun they tested for cardiac coherence. Sure enough when the boy and his dog were together the electrocardiogram showed each of them to be in the state of chaotic balance which is cardiac coherence. When they were moved apart they kept a healthy heart rate but came out of coherence. Brought back together and the coherence returned.

I’m not sure my dog ever did that for me. He’s a lovely old chap, but he doesn’t bring me inner peace. One person that does though is my little boy. Like the boy and his dog, I have become aware that simply being physically close to him often swings my heart slowly but surely into perfect coherence – I am happy, at peace and have a full heart.

Death

I saw that larger than life parliamentarian Cyril Smith had died yesterday. He was a big big man. I think I heard he peaked at 29 stone. I was a little surprised to hear he made it to 82, just goes to show being a gourmand won’t necessarily kill you.

What struck me though was the report of his memorial service. How he had spent his last days planning exactly how it would be – including hand written notes to people he cared for to catch them by surprise and delight them after he had gone. A warm hearted joker to the last [albiet subsequent reports in 2014 strongly suggest otherwise].

I’ve often thought mistily about death and the final taking stock of my life I will do. Who will be there smiling at my rosy faced cheeks. But reading about the actual reality of death as I did in Anti-cancer made my heart race, my chest tighten and my anxiety levels rise. David Servan-Schreiber sets out the most common fears, it will hurt, I will be alone, my story will be unfinished, important things will be left unsaid etc. These are very real fears for me. He also writes that some people close on the moment with grace and tranquillity.

Our dog is dying. He has a big and growing lump on his side which will surely kill him in weeks not months. He’s had a good long life and I’ve noticed he’s sleeping more, I can see he’s chasing bunnies – he is running in his sleep, catching and mouthing and happy. A friend told me his dog walked slowly out into the garden one day curled up under a tree and gently floated away.

Much of my attraction to eudaimonia or flourishing (and the ancient Greek version of ‘happiness’ as the product of a life lived) is tied up with this final account. But on my bike this morning it came to me that maybe it will hurt, maybe it will be sudden, maybe it will be banal, maybe I won’t get to write handwritten notes. So the time to achieve the eudaemonia is here and now and the right moment to assess my happiness is today and every day.

Achilles left no handwritten notes.