Never Mind the B%llocks

20120128-190635.jpgI found myself swearing a lot this week – a sure sign I’ve been depleting my modest ego. Self-control carries a cognitive cost: the more you soak up the more you get p155ed off.

There were good bits, but also plenty of b%llocks. According to the Broadcasting Standards Commission the relative severity of the various profanities, as perceived by the British public in 2000, placed “b%llocks” in eighth position in terms of its perceived severity, between “pr1ck” (seventh) and “ar5ehole” (ninth). Enough said.

A lot of angst in life comes from the need to be in control. People seek position and status in the hope of controlling more – and controlling others more. But the definition of larger roles is in fact that you control less: you directly do less, precisely determine less and very often control less of your immediate environment or your time.

As someone said to me of a senior absentee a few months back: “Well he’s obviously at the level where he can’t control his own time”. Wherever you work, whatever level, there is always someone who can jerk your strings.

But as I said to a colleague, and later the missus, if a meteor hit London we’d be scrapping for tinned food not worrying about being jostled at work. The Stoics knew this in Ancient Rome. If a senator could be ‘offed’ for offending a fickle Emperor, what refuge is there in status, money or power.

Life also throws constant spanners in the works. Last week the dishwasher broke – B%llocks! Rushing, I forgot key elements of my daughter’s school gear on two separate school runs – B%llocks, B%llocks. And my bike back wheel literally exploded, scaring pedestrians, as the rim buckled from too much wear – B$LLOCKS! All three made a mess of my best laid plans. Just as you fancy you have things under control, life intervenes.

So control is illusory, power is perverse and life is capricious. What to do? Curl up in a ball? Nope, I think aiming for ‘mastery’ not control is the answer. Mastery means being alive to context, alive to the environment, staying in shape, investing in good friends and support networks, developing resilience and sometimes stoicism and not letting the b@stards – or the botherations – get you down.

A little bit of mastery can go a long way. Giving up on control allows bigger things to become manageable and smaller ones to be less irksome. There will always be days where ‘B%llocks’ is the politest way of saying it. But giving up on the illusion of control means the next impulse is to laugh, not cry.


As I wrote the other week, I now know the cognitive cost of self-control is ‘ego depletion’. In Wired’s less technical terms, acts of self-control ‘piss the ego off’ and attract us to angry thoughts, words and deeds.

‘Ego depletion’ has sometimes caused me to undo my good works with an ‘unnecessary’ withering remark or ‘unduly’ bleak assessment. But whilst these may seem ‘unnecessary’ or ‘undue’ in the eyes of others – and damaging certainly – experience, and now evidence, show a ‘depleted ego’ demands its redress. Is there a better way? This week, I discovered, that laughter works just as well as scything remarks in topping up the cognitive cost of self-control.

I was in an absolutely packed three day management meeting in Madrid. Travel, time differences, lots of people, lots of subjects, lots of personalities and inevitably a certain amount of self-control required to navigate with aplomb. Surely the perfect tee up for one of my incongruous blasts. But this week I didn’t do it.

Of course I was tempted. Tired, hot, periodically irritated and regularly in receipt of the ‘gift’ of feedback, a good put down or an acerbic ‘reality check’ was sorely tempting for a sore ego. But I didn’t do it. Instead, I applied what I have learned in recent months and years: watch my energy, leave other people’s stuff alone if it doesn’t really concern me, avoid tangling unnecessarily. Best of all though, I stumbled upon some humour.

Humour in big meetings is a delicate balance. People are often more ready to laugh ‘at’ you than ‘with’ you. As Aristotle rightly points out there is a fine line between ‘boor’ and ‘buffoon’. But a winning smile and an amusing turn of phrase was sometimes all it took to lift the mood when the whole room was just as ‘ego depleted’ as I was.

The net result? I left with the job done – feeling tired, but cheerful – and with smiling goodbyes all round. Much better than angry with myself, diffident and apologetic for unnecessary barbs.

In sum, a moment of laughter tops up a depleted ego far more effectively than a verbal headbut – however tempting…

Self Control

Interesting to read in Wired that exercising self-control carries a cognitive penalty which makes you more likely to develop a ‘bad mood’ and lose it with someone else. As Wired has it:

In a series of clever studies, the Northwestern psychologists David Gal and Wendy Liu demonstrate that the exertion of self-control doesn’t just make it harder for us to contain our own anger – it also make us more interested in watching anger-themed movies, or thinking about anger-related information, or looking an angry facial expressions. In other words, acts of self-control haven’t just exhausted the ego – they actually seem to have pissed it off.

I used to often get spiky at the end of the working day. The waifs and strays who came to unburden themselves would often get a sharp-tongued salvo as I hiccupped some bile.

I always kind of admired Zinedine Zidane for head butting Materazzi in the World Cup finals in 2006. I could relate to it in a strange way. A bit of brain science suggests Zidane and I aren’t just occasionally spiky, like everyone else we just have finite reserves of self-control.

One more reason it’s good to keep in touch with those emotions. Too much self-control and you’re en route to head-butting someone.