Why we need to redefine success!

We can all have pretty fixed ideas about who is successful in life, and who isn’t. Social media sharpens these skills. We might think of people like Richard Branson or Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey (or ever else is trending on our news feed). We tend to think these people just have ‘it’ and ‘it’ is a rare quality and we probably don’t have ‘it.’

I don’t believe this is true. I believe we learn the characteristics and personality traits for adult success (and failure) through the influences of our childhood relationships and environments. These characteristics and traits are essentially Childhood Survival Strategies that develop over time, mostly as a response to fear. Fears like; not making our parents proud; not standing out from our siblings; upsetting important care givers; of not being liked or loved; or not being left behind; and even fear of fear its self.

These Childhood Survival Strategies become like behavioural blue-prints. We often build essentially the same work and relational scenarios, and find the same challenging patterns because we are still using the same old childhood behavioural blue-prints. It’s almost as if a part of our brain hasn’t noticed we’ve grown up and things have changed. A lot!

One of the biggest changes is as adults we thankfully don’t need fear to learn how to succeed. In fact fear actually interferes with our brain’s ability to learn. What we need is a calm safe brain that can come up with good strategies, identify reliable resources, be clear minded enough to put one foot in front of the other and willing to learn from our mistakes. Without fear!

When we are strategizing for our career or business successes, we need to regularly evaluate what is and isn’t working. We need to refocus, redefine and even reinvent our goals to meet the inevitable changes. But most importantly we need to know what we mean by success, because chances are we are unconsciously defining success by outdated parameters.

To help you redefine success try asking yourself “What do I want to achieve?” … and then ask “Why?” and keep asking “Why?” until you arrive at an answer that surprises you. Something new you didn’t know about yourself. Then ask yourself “Is this true?”. The answer will be the key to your new definition of success, no matter if your answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This is best done as a written exercise.

The Beauty Effect

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. What does this mean? Beauty can enchant some of us into doing things that others will never understand.  Beautiful women and sunsets cast these spells on some. A car fancier might see a 1974 E-Type Jaguar sports car as ‘poetry in motion’, but others might see it as a money pit. Beauty is not only about aesthetics.  It also relates to our inner experiences.  When we perceive something we think is beautiful a green light comes on saying  ‘go for it!’. Beauty is about everything feeling just right, and it’s not always just physical beauty. The eyes we behold beauty with aren’t only our physical eyes. Beauty is ‘seen’ through our felt senses via the right hemisphere of our brain and our nervous system.

So why is this so useful to know?

If we consider Beauty (I’m using an upper case ‘B’ here to define this much broader concept of beauty) as a ‘green light’ motivating us to go ahead with something, we can apply this Beauty Effect to motivate us when we are struggling to finish or even begin a task. What we tend to do when we are procrastinating is anything else but the thing we should be doing. We know it’s a thinly veiled avoidance tactic, but mowing the lawn or doing a supermarket shop is such a great way to avoid the real task we should be doing because these activities need to be done anyway. We get a brief sense of accomplishment. But when we run out of maintenance type activities we still have the dreaded task waiting for us. So then we might start eating or drinking or watch TV or all three!

Recently I started doing my tax return, something I’d been putting off for quite a while, and I applied the beauty of order. Step by step I created beautiful piles of receipts and satisfying rows of earnings and expenses. Sometimes when I’m struggling to write I organise my desk, but other times I might just put a beautiful bunch of flowers on my desk. I think that’s why many people put photos of their beautiful children or partner on their desk. Whether you put flowers or a plant or photos or a goldfish in a bowl on your desk, whether you take your laptop to a beautiful park, or listen to beautiful music, or even changed into something that feels beautiful to wear; you will find creating the Beauty Effect can inspire you to do something you have been avoiding. Is there something in your life you have been putting off because it feels too overwhelming to get started?


Q: Is stress and anxiety the same thing?

A: I think it’s helpful to consider stress and anxiety as different.

Think of stress as a response to something stressful that is actually happening, where as anxiety is a response to anticipating or remembering something stressful.

Imagine you were caught in a bad traffic jam and you were running late for an important meeting. That is stress because it is actually happen, and even more stressful because it’s something you can’t do anything about.

Now imagine you had set your alarm to get you up at 6am so you can beat the traffic and be on time for your important meeting, but you don’t want to get up (it’s dark and cold and you didn’t get to bed till 2am). As you lie in bed thinking about the traffic building up your heart begins to race, your skin becomes clammy, you clench your jaw and you might even get a pain in your chest. That’s anxiety because you are actually comfortably tucked up in bed, you are not really in a stressful situation.


Q: How do I introduce mindfulness into the reality of my daily life ?

A: Mindfulness is something we do need to practice, but it would be somewhat pointless if the only time we used mindfulness was when we sat and did formal practice. Sure we would feel more relaxed afterwards, but it isn’t going to make a big difference to our life in a practical way unless we can integrate it.

It’s like going to the golfing range to practice your swing but never playing a game of golf!

The best way to integrate mindfulness is to introduce informal practice. Informal mindfulness practice is applying a mindfulness skill in an informal way to a real situations in life. I always think it’s better to do this with small almost insignificant situations you might usually grit your teeth and bare. For example, next time you are waiting at the checkout behind a very slow customer rather than tapping your foot, or distracting yourself with your phone, try letting go of your irritation by breathing consciously.

Ladders to Success

(or how to succeed without really trying)

When I was a kid we had a board game called How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. When I was ten I had no idea it was based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book of the same name and later the successful 1961 Broadway musical. I had even less of a clue that the author was inspired to write the satirical instructional manual for success from his own experiences at an advertising agency (Benton & Bowles) where he started to climb his ladder of success from the bottom rung as a mail-room clerk and eventually working his way up to a vice-presidency.

But clearly the game (and its title) has stuck in my mind, and in some ways it’s part of the inspiration for this latest blog … enjoy!

Joseph Campbell, one of my favourite wise minds, once said, ‘The problem with climbing the ladder of success is that sometimes you get to the top and discover your ladder is against the wrong wall.’

This gem of his always makes me think of the mindfulness principle of non-striving, a way of ‘no purposeful action and yet action’. Sounds a bit crazy, but have you ever noticed if you don’t care too much about something you are trying to do, you often do surprisingly well? That’s what non-striving is like. It doesn’t mean no goals or success.

So how are we expected to succeed in life without really trying?

As children we are taught morals, ethics and life skills to prepare us to eventually live successful and functioning adult lives, but children can only fantasise about the reality of adulthood. The most that any childhood can give us is a rough map of the territory we may eventually travel as adults. Children are also biologically ‘wired’ to survive and it is this survival instinct that feeds the pressure and anxiety to succeed. Subconsciously we are striving to avoid life or death situations and this process creates a Lens of Striving, with which the majority of us learn to read our maps. That’s how our life ladders end up against the wrong building, we mistake the map for the real territory, and then we defend it with our lives!

But we need more than survival to live a fulfilling life, we need to thrive.

Most people say that all they really want from life is to be happy, yet the life we work so hard to create seems to take us further away from authentic happiness. As young adults we believe we are free to choose to comply or rebel against the wishes of our family, but either way we are still striving for a life within the limited choices of the family map.

So how do we get rid of our map?

We don’t. We just need to see it for what it is – a map. If your tourist map or GPS device didn’t show a particular street or place of interest you came across, would you pretend you couldn’t see them or they weren’t really there? Probably not, but that’s what we do with our family map. Striving often makes us blind to life choices that aren’t on our family map. It’s this blindness that has us struggling to climb the Ladder of Success only to find we’ve placed it against the wrong building. In this metaphor I imagine the ladder climber standing on the roof of the wrong building and looking wistfully out at another building in the distance. The sun is setting and our ladder climber wonders ‘do I have time to try for the right building?’

I have a friend whom I have known for over twenty years. When we first met he told me he had been in a punk rock band in high school, and as a young adult he was a session musician. He played me a recording of a piece of beautiful music he had composed, and I recall being so impressed by his talent because he had also sung the vocals and played all the instruments. Sadly he gave up his music because he believed he couldn’t be the best. Instead he followed his father’s footsteps and strove to succeed in a business he believed his father had failed. He did succeed, but in all the years I have known him I never saw him actually play music, until last Sunday. I watched him perform in his church band and, even though I could see he was very nervous, it was so obvious he was in his element at long last.

So it’s simple, all we need to do is just stop striving. Of course not, we can’t stop striving all together, but we can learn to control it, rather than have it control us. Imagine a volume control on a sound system with only two settings, zero and ten. That’s what our childhood conditioned striving reaction is like. As adults we need to learn how much striving effort we need to apply. We need to create a Striving Volume Control with levels between zero and ten.

On Mythbusters the other night I saw a great example of how striving can be an inefficient use of energy. They were testing how effective aggressive lane changing is as opposed to staying in one lane for getting to a destination quicker. As it turns out there is a gain to all that stressful (striving) and dangerous weaving in and out of lanes, but only by about two to three per cent. In a just over one-hour long commute in heavy traffic the lane-changing car arrived only a few minutes ahead of the lane-staying car. You might think it’s worth arriving on time instead of five minutes late, but consider how much healthier, more professional and/or enjoyable it would be to arrive focused, unruffled and not stressed. That’s gold!

Non-striving is something you need to value enough to be willing to create. Part of how you do this is to stop looking through your Lens of Striving and start seeing there are more levels on your Striving Volume Control as well as more choices than you think on your life map, even if you have to pencil them in yourself. Next time you attempt to do something important, try pretending you don’t really care about success. If you can pretend well enough you will have a sense that your success came without you really trying.

Making Room for Grace

Have you ever wondered why some people weather life’s storms better than others? You might be temped to think they were either gifted, just plain lucky or both. While this might be true, in the end we all have to find a way to deal with unpleasant and painful circumstances and if we want to make the best of life we first need to accept life on life’s terms. When we accept the fullness of what life presents us our acceptance makes room for grace to enter. I like to see grace as a woman. In my mind she often looks just like Audrey Hepburn, a woman who has come to epitomise the very meaning of elegance and grace. When we make room for Grace she will bring ease, simplicity and elegance with her. But finding acceptance isn’t easy at first. If it were I’d be out of a job!

As a therapist my job is to help my clients look at themselves, their situations and their lives from different perspectives. When we are too close to a difficult situation we loose perspective, we struggle and we often feel trapped. Finding acceptance brings the freedom of new possibilities and can be the first step to resolving our struggles. Thinking of acceptance in the normal way however will only bring frustration and resentment, adding to our struggles.

So how is Mindfulness Acceptance different from normal acceptance? Imagine someone gives you a gift, a gift you didn’t ask for, it would be rude not to accept it and show your appreciation. Even if you don’t like the gift you have to accept it otherwise you are going to hurt the gift givers feelings, right? That’s ordinary acceptance. Mindfulness acceptance is not like that. It doesn’t mean we have to like, condone, put up with, give in to or withhold feelings such as disapproval, annoyance or disappointment. Mindfulness acceptance is not about becoming complacent or passive. If we looked up the meaning of acceptance in the dictionary we’d find something like ‘consent to receive what is offered’. Notice it doesn’t say anything about admitting defeat or getting away with scot-free. We need to think of mindfulness acceptance as not so much about what we do but more about the attitude we take.

Acceptance is one of the seven attitudinal foundations of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness acceptance is an attitude of giving consent, of saying “yes” to life its self and acknowledging present moment reality. Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth and The Power of Now, says – “Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”

So saying “yes” to life is the secret to making the best of what life presents, but remember, saying “yes” (or acceptance) is not about become complacent or passive. When we give our consent to life we make room for what we can change, and what we can’t change. When I am struggling with finding acceptance I often recall the first lines of The Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity, courage and wisdom … all wonderful words, but how do we bring these qualities into our everyday life? We find acceptance and make room for Grace. With acceptance we find qualities such as serenity, courage and wisdom come much easier to us.

Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap and internationally renowned trainer of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) says; “ Another word for it [acceptance] is “expansion”, this fits nicely with the metaphorical talk of opening up, creating space and making room.”

Let’s play around with some different ways of seeing acceptance. In this context ‘it’ is life and the reality of the present moment:

• Allow ‘it’ to be there
• Open up and make room for ‘it’
• Expand around ‘it’
• Give ‘it’ permission to be where ‘it’ already is
• Let go of struggling with ‘it’
• Make peace with ‘it’
• Stop wasting your energy with pushing ‘it’ away
• Breathe into ‘it’

Does any one phrase seem particularly meaningful to you? Maybe you said to your self “how on earth am I expected to make peace with …?” or “I wish I could let go of struggling with …”. We are always going to be attached to our struggles because they represent something very important and meaningful to us, which is why it’s so easy to see solutions to other people’s problems. We can see how other people only need let go or make peace with some aspect of their problem and things would be much easier for them.

Maybe at this point you might be prepared to try acceptance for something you struggle with?

Breathe in and, as your lungs expand and make room for fresh air, imagine you are expanding your perspective of your situation and making room for its entirety, even the aspects you don’t like. A sense of saying; “yes, this is the reality of … “. As you breathe out relax and let go of your resistance to the reality of what is, taking on an attitude of acceptance. Now you have made room for Grace to enter.

When we stop struggling with how unacceptable the reality of life is, or some aspect of life, we make room for a whole new way of seeing things. New opportunities, choices and actions present themselves. Grace can step in and in a light bulb moment we see an elegant solution. Why is that? It’s because so often it’s the simple and easy solutions we have been avoiding or resisting.

“Accept – then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” Eckhart Tolle

Leaning into Resilience

Resilience is a quality we often admire in others and strive to obtain for ourselves. Personally I have come to realise that over time my resilience has grown because I have been developing skills that actually fall quite nicely into what I now teach as mindfulness. Research shows that some people inherit resilient genes while others have to learn resilience the hard way, from experience. I actually feel learned resilience is stronger than genetic resilience because we are consciously choosing to develop better ways of coping.

According to Andrew Zollie, co-author of the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, a recent study by pioneering neuroscientists compared the effects of mindfulness practices on the brains of actively meditating Buddhist monks with those of ordinary non-monk civilians like you and me. The outcomes showed that effective psychological resilience can be gained by regular mindfulness type practice no matter who you are, whether you are religious (or not), whether you have experience with meditation (or not) and no matter what your cultural background is.

However there’s more than just a psychological benefit to mindfulness practice, there’s also a deep physiological advantage. A study at Emory University found that adolescents who practiced CBCT (a form of mindfulness based practice called Cognitive-Based Compassion Training) showed that as well as reduced anxiety and increased feelings of hopefulness there were considerable reductions in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP). This is a particular protein that’s a good indicator of overall cellular inflammation and is connected with type 2 diabetes as well as all kinds of other illnesses later in life, including cancer!

So what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not the same as meditation, and there is no religious component to mindfulness – anyone, with any belief system, can enjoy the benefits of mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is an alert mental state of openness and awareness, involving focusing on the breath to bring awareness to the here-and-now experience with curiosity and flexibility. When we practice mindfulness we are paying attention to, and letting go of, our thinking processes because very often it’s our over active thinking that causes stress, anxiety and even depression.

Obviously we need to think and, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t stop our thinking process for long, however many of us are effectively addicted to thinking. All this over thinking is incredibly draining so we feel fatigued and our ability to respond in a clear and decisive way is diminished.

The main reason for this is that obsessive thinking takes us away from the power of the present moment. We struggle to pay full attention to what we are doing which means we are almost constantly in a state of nonacceptance of this moment. Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, says that all struggle results from this nonacceptance.

On the surface this is a simple and somewhat obvious concept, but if we look a little deeper you will see that while sometimes there really is something unexceptable going on, most of the time there is actually nothing wrong with the moment we find ourselves in except for the content of our obsessive thoughts.