Fear factored

A book I’m currently reading urges us to think of ‘fear’ as the mental equivalent of physical ‘pain’.

On one level they’re the things we want to most avoid; but looked at another way they are just simple signalling mechanisms. Pain is the body’s only way to draw our attention to a problem. Fear is the mind’s.

This opens up the possibility of a different approach to fear. Not do everything to avoid it; but objectively acknowledge it, accept it and maybe sometimes push through it…

The idea is that fear is just the psyche’s way of signalling boundaries to us – which is very much the same role pain plays in the body. They are both acutely and finely tuned signalling mechanisms.

Just like a burnt finger keeps us off hot kettles; so fear keeps us away from scary situations. But as a very experienced sports coach told me at work – strength is built by how you recover.

So the idea is to recognise when fear is signalling a boundary and just feel it – don’t fear it. And if it still seems like a good thing to do, push through that fear a bit.

I can’t say I’m quite there on this one yet. Stuff you don’t know how to do, can’t control or which could go very wrong still seems pretty scary to me. But if you accept it’s always going to feel scary, that calms the troubled waters a good deal.

And then what?

Well if you accept fear is often just a signal of the new and the unknown – and that variety is the spice of life – then trying new things and meeting new people are indeed things one might fear; but they’re not things to avoid…

To test my thesis I’m going paddle boarding this week on holidays: a thing I don’t know how to do, with the risk of humiliation and getting wet, for the first time, all on my own, with a lesson from someone I’ve never met.

Exactly what I’d generally avoid – so here’s to giving it go!

Smile, surf, sleep

Smile

Talking to my daughter about her friendship angst this morning, I advocated she try a welcoming smile. 

I told her about the nice lady at work who told me about the cold snap in Romania and how it’s threatening the cherry trees; people are tending fires to gently waft smoke through the branches to protect the cherries. We both wished them well.

This lovely encounter grew from simply smiling, on three occasions as she made me a latte; and the smile developed into an exchange and then a conversation. 

Let’s see how my eldest gets on – I suspect it might take me than a smile with this ‘friend’.

Surf

I’m reading a rather terrific book about letting go of anxiety and fear and tapping into your own energy. 

More of this anon, but one of the many useful reminders is nearly everything that happens to us, in truth, is outside of our control. This means there are only two options, try to resist, control or avoid life – or roll with it. 

This week (like so many) looked on Tuesday morning (after an enjoyable but tiring bank holiday) like wave after wave of bother, problems, egos, unreasonable demands, risks and stressors; culminating in large forum event – at which I would have to orchestrate, perform and keep the whole show together. 

So it was; but by (largely) surfing along on the top of it all and not fighting it (and myself) I got through it just fine. By saving the energy on worry, avoidance and fear – I got it all done quite happily. 

As King Canute amply showed, there’s little point trying to stop the waves; may as well get up on your board and ride ’em.


Sleep

My old friend sleep. I need it so much, I never get enough of it and I never do enough to make sure I do. But I have improved in a few areas… to earplugs I’ve added eyepatches and from last week a booze curfew at 9pm. 

All the book and all the sage advice in them can’t help me when I’m tired. Without my sleep I’m hopeless; with it I’m smiling and surfing along.

Ground Control to Major Tom

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This week’s song is Bowie’s Space Oddity. Having had to take to the airwaves – and take on the national news media – at times I’ve felt a bit like Major Tom.

Small stuff really – Monocle 24 a boutique radio station, a few letters to the papers and the Huffington Post an Internet newspaper. But high enough stakes for me.

On Wednesday, as I sat staring through the glass into a radio studio control room, there was a pang of what Bowie sang. “Here am I sitting in my tin can, far above the world. Planet Earth is blue. And there’s nothing I can do.”

Earlier, ‘Ground Control’ had contacted Major Tom. “You’ve [nearly] made the grade”, I learned on the back of my rapid letter and blog writing endeavours. Then Ground Control moved swiftly on to another far bigger beast: “the papers want[ing] to know whose shirts [he] wears”.

But the weirdest experience for me, was taking part in a four way radio debate. To my surprise it was fun. I enjoyed it and I came out feeling less tired than when I went in – the opposite of what I’d assumed.

I’d certainly found myself “floating in a most peculiar way.” But as for Major Tom, “the stars look very different today”. A thing I have often feared, turns out to be fine – even fun.

Perhaps – like Major Tom my “spaceship knows which way to go” better than I do. Could this be lift-off for a bit more self-confidence in ‘fronting-up’ on the media? I might even enjoy it.

Only time will tell.

24×17

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What’s 24×17? C’mon, c’mon. The clock’s ticking. Struggling? Sweating? No answer? A guesstimate? Not sure? Not good at maths? Need more time?

Relax. No-one can do 24×17 without thinking about it. There is no ‘fast thinking’ route to 24×17. It requires calculation and that means deliberation. The answer is below – I just checked it on a calculator.

What’s interesting though isn’t the answer. It’s the reaction the question gets from different people. Personally, I looked at it, tried to round up 24, then to round 17, then lost it, reminded myself I’m rubbish at arithmetic and waited for someone else to come up with the answer.

A friend who’s ‘good’ at maths quite quickly got to “About 400…” and then frowned and struggled for the final figure. Another colleague who does a lot of numbers work – and is smilingly tenacious – also struggled, looked puzzled that he was struggling and continued to wrestle with it even after I’d told him not to. I could see he was still calculating despite me telling him the point of the exercise wasn’t the answer. Three other people thought for a moment, said ‘oh god, I can’t do maths’ and smiled wanly.

What’s interesting to me is we all failed, but how depending on our self-image on mathematical ability, we all had different responses to that failure. Modest satisfaction with being close, desire to stick at it, preference to leave well alone. And yet all of us probably had the tools to work it out in broadly similar ways.

Perhaps maths plays with so many people’s heads for this reason – the boundaries between mental arithmetic and calculation aren’t clear cut. Some people clip the fence, others set themselves carefully to jump cleanly and many just refuse.

Learning this helped me this week. Handed a sheet of figures – which normally I’d have glanced at, then avoided and jumped to conclusions on – I asked for a minute to study them. It took me nearer two, but then I’d understood them and was happy with what they said, and what I thought of them.

I’m finding numbers are not so scary and actually quite satisfying, if I steadily negotiate all the mental fences instead of leaping wildly or refusing. Perhaps we’d all be more prepared to jump if we knew most maths is not innate but carefully calculated.

(804)
(Backwards)

Courage

I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.

The Fridge Door

I read a top neuroscientist’s suggestion last night that our capacity to understand how the human brain works may ultimately be limited by the capacity of our nervous system. This reminds me of a thought I had when studying philosophy of mind at Oxford: if our brain was simple enough to understand we’d probably be too simple to understand it.

One thing I do believe is that the brain is probabilistic and Bayesian. So I was interested to read what Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist had to say about it in a recent article in the New Scientist:

Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.

I’m increasingly sure this is right and is part of our everyday experience. But as the world becomes more cosmopolitan, we are more and more likely to encounter people with very similar neuroanatomy, but incredibly different experiences. I’ve read before that humans are very poor judges both of probability and coincidence. When we bump into someone we work with on holiday or a friend we’ve not seen in years in an airport we assume fate, a guiding hand or incredible coincidence.

On holidays this year I bumped into a person from work at a village festival in France, the former Chairman of my organisation on a cliff in Devon and crossed within 6 feet of UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, each of us barefoot in shorts on a beach in Cornwall. Incredible. But in fact not. Our brains are tuned for the humdrum of a hamlet, village, smallholding or savanna plain not the incredibly interconnected world of 21st century media, Facebook friends, social networks and ubiquitous travel.

Even if we are from the same physical place, we live on tremendously varied diets of interests, TV and work. The massing moments of the 19th and 20th century: factory gates, church, football, movies and network TV, which gave many people common experiences and outlooks, are no more. What chance then you’ll spontaneously see things the same way as the next man or women at work – almost none.

As Dorothy Rowe writes: This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.

I have seen a number of very experienced senior people apply for fewer jobs than there are of them this week. I have spoken at length to several of them. Although trying to hide it, each was frightened, alone and in their own world of meaning. They knew to some degree that future events can and probably will invalidate their ideas of themselves, but each of them was to some extent caught in a solipsistic, self-referencing nightmare of wanting to be in control of their destiny and feeling utterly powerless in the face of their perceptions of the views others held of them – the deciders, their peers, their loved ones, the court of organisational opinion.

As new age writer Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally. The whole world of control between humans is based on that”. Or as the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “it is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things”.

So: we cannot see reality directly, we are poor judges of probability and coincidence and we are always guessing at what is happening based on snatched perceptions and an experience set which is always different – and sometimes very different – from those we find ourselves working with. As a result we are perpetually making self-limiting assumptions and taking things personally. Thus we are often alone, fearful and perturbed.

Stoicism is one answer. Endure, expect little and shrug off life’s indignities. Being a hermit is another. But if I seek the fulfilment of a public life of Aristotelian virtue – lit by bright flashes of ‘doing the right thing’ with the courage of Achilles – neither of those is enough.

Given the wrapper of how people ‘interpret’ things is all important, this week I’ve tried several times to remember the advice of a friend I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. He has an autistic, teenage stepson. Tricky. He sometimes tries to correct his behaviour and gets a lively reaction. His wife though has a way which works. Instead of saying “you left the fridge door open” she simply says “the fridge door is open”. Nine times out of ten it gets closed without any drama.

Simply saying how things are or how I see them has worked better for me in a very emotionally charged week than assuming, cajoling, second-guessing or taking things too personally.

Simply saying “the fridge door is open” gets it closed more often than not.

Achilles

Within hours of setting up this blog and posting my first post I was gripped with a pang of pure fear. What if someone mad, bad or sad takes an interest in me, seeks to contact me, meet me or hurt me or my family? Natural human reaction to unknown unquantifiable risk – flight. Must put privacy around the blog, make it invite only or better still just write for myself and only let others see any of it when I’m 100% sure it’s safe and correct and good.

But then Achilles came to me. When I thought of the concept Aristotle was the Greek for me. Achilles like Brad Pitt in Troy was too flashy and reckless and gym-toned and beautiful. But on reflection Achilles has qualities I value too. Bravery, action, leadership, courage and the capacity to stand tall and be a man.

So I changed the name of my blog to Achilles and Aristotle not or. I may not have his looks, torso or divine protection, but I can have his courage, boldness and strength. The desire to retreat to the purely cerebral, to my own cave and away from the uncertainty of people is strong within me. But the rewards of family, work and friends require me to constantly step out from the shadows.

So what’s to hide? If I attract some spam, some barbed comments, even some people I don’t want, I have the strength growing within to ignore, forgive or say no. I increasingly know myself and have real strength within. So I’ll follow Achilles, set aside fear and just write.