How Do You Want Your Story to Go ?

The Jewish psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl famously wrote in his book about the psychology of everyday life within a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“There is a gap between stimulus and response, and in this gap lies all our freedom”

Put another way – we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can strive to control how we respond.

Frankl wrote that those who couldn’t find anything positive in their circumstances, quickly lost hope and gave in – which always proved fatal for those in the camps. Those who could cling to something positive, no matter how small – even just a slight improvement in the weather, avoiding injury during the day’s work, or a tiny morsel of food, stood more chance of making it through another day.

When facing challenges – from the trivial to the profound, we fundamentally have two choices available to us:

- We can respond negatively – feeling sorry for ourselves, letting the world ‘grind us down’, adding to our sense of anger, resentment, regret, disapointment and ultimately unhappiness.

- Or we can respond positively – accepting things as they are but not letting them overpower us, ‘rising to the challenge’, picking ourselves up and ‘making the most of it’.

Which we tend to choose is influenced of course by our personality and experience, which collectively tend to give us all our individual ’default settings’. Our emotional ‘default setting’ might make us more inclined to tend towards anger, distrust or resentment, or alternatively, we might be one of those lucky individuals who tend towards  gratitude, enthusiasm and joy.

In many situations we might all find ourselves confronting another emotional ‘default setting’: FEAR.

I don’t want to knock fear too much – it’s what stops us running through fast moving traffic and trying to pet rabid dogs, but as with many of our emotions, in our modern complex lives, it can all too often work against us – forming a barrier which prevents us from doing what we want, standing up for what we believe, or simply pushing our comfort zones from time to time.

It’s a topic full of cliches, but there’s no getting away from it – if we want to have richer, fuller, more meaningful and enjoyable lives, we will first have to summon-up the courage. Our fears can be tremendously limiting – stopping and trapping us; not just fear of physical harm or pain, but fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, fear of disappointment and fear of failure.

We all feel fear, but we need to learn to control it, and where necessary ignore it and just ‘do it anyway‘.

If this all sounds like tremendously annoying ‘be all you can be‘, ‘how to achieve anything you want‘ self-help mumbo jumbo, it might be you’ve missed the point . . . It’s not just about how we strive for the pinnicles of life, it’s also about how we lift ourselves out of the gutter !

Managing to see obstacles as challenges to be overcome, rather than insurmountable dead-ends, is how we rouse ourselves out of depression, how we gradually come to terms with tragedy, grief and loss, how we continue to live life every day despite illness, injury, or infirmity, and how we manage to keep smiling and encouraging others, even when we’ve not got much left in ‘the tank’ ourselves.

Tess Marshall, blogger on Bold Life, writes that ‘the difference between someone who fails and someone who succeeds is the courage to act, repeatedly’. She’s not talking about scaling Everest or managing hostile business takeovers, but as a young mother of four under four year olds, battling on against exhaustion and depression, taking it just one day at a time.

There is a lot we can do to help ourselves get control of our fears and negative emotions – focusing more on the present moment rather than the future and past, trying to reframe possible failure or rejection in a more positive way, analyze our fears – many are at least partly irrational, and not least by taking things in small steps.

Another option is to try and ‘catch some courage’ of someone else. Bravery, like laughter, is contagious. Most scary things seem less scary faced together with others, or at least with the support of a friend.

Failing that there are endless examples and stories of inspiring individuals amazingly overcoming difficulties and tragedy.

The two examples below are two of the most inspiring I’ve seen on the internet – if you’re having a rough time at the moment, perhaps a bit scared of the future, or struggling with a particular difficult decision, perhaps they may inspire you !

“Sometimes courage is simply saying ‘I will try again tomorrow’ “

 Mary Anne Radmacher-Hershey


RELATED ARTICLES – Life Lessons Learned Climbing a Deadly Volcano, 10 Ways You Can Have Enough Money and Stuff

Photo by Natalie Lucier, via Flickr

Is it Safe ?

Is it safe ?

Is it safe to overtake this lorry ? Is this shelf safe to put these books on ? Is it safe to take out this loan ? Is it safe to try to rewire these lights by myself ? Is it safe to send this critical email to my boss ? Is it safe to have this operation ? Is it safe to put the washing out in this weather ?

We ask these questions all the time – sometimes we’re asking other people, but mostly we’re asking ourselves, usually subconsciously.

Deciding whether something is safe or not is an important life skill, and we’re pretty good at it when considering most familiar everyday issues, but we often struggle to make good decisions when the situation is more complex or unfamiliar.

Next time you’re with a group of friends or colleagues you might want to ask them the following questions.

Not too much thinking about it allowed, no discussion, no caveats or provisos –  just a basic yes or no :

Is travelling by plane safe ? Travelling by car ? Skiing ? Playing Rugby ? Boxing ? GM food ? Pesticides ? Eating fast food ? Receiving donated blood ? Cleaning your home ? Online banking ? Using a mobile phone ? Living by a mobile phone mast ? Being a fisherman ? Being in the army ? Drinking alcohol ? Nuclear power ? Giving birth ? Staying in bed all day ?

The right answer, of course, is that there’s no right answer. People’s opinion of what’s safe varies – it’s subjective.

The dictionary defines SAFE as: ‘free from danger, not exposed to risk’. But we all realise there is some level of risk in almost everything we do, even doing nothing ! The real question is how much risk do we consider acceptable in any given circumstance ?

The dictionary defines RISK as: ‘chance or possibility of danger or harm’. Risk considers the likelihood of a specific event occurring during a specified period of time. unlike safe, risk isn’t subjective, it’s objective.

Well at least that’s the theory.

In the real world assessing risk is complicated.

We rarely actually know the exact level of risk, more often than not we have to estimate it – based on what’s happened before, and what we expect to happen in the future. Needless to say our track record is variable ! Donald Rumsfeld’s well known clumsy phrase attracted a lot of criticism, but it did actually make sense – there are the things we know, the things we know we don’t know, and the things we don’t know we don’t know. When we assess risk we consider what we know, and we make assumptions and estimates regarding what we don’t.

But it’s what we don’t know we don’t know that often posses the biggest risk. These totally unanticipated and unexpected events are what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Black Swan Events . Before the discovery of Australia by Europeans, if you’d asked anyone in England what colour swans were they would have said ‘they’re always white’. No one would have considered that somewhere on Earth there were black swans. Such totally unexpected events are obviously pretty difficult to plan for !

Another issue we now hear a lot about is ‘systemic risk‘ – the big-picture risk affecting not just the specific issue under consideration, but the whole underlying system. For example, if you’re planning a get rich quick scheme at a local casino, a systemic risk factor might be that it closes down before you get a chance to try your scheme – a risk you may well have overlooked (but probably doing you a favour). Prior to the banking crisis, banks were focused on assessing their own risks, not on the prospect that all banks might fail at the same time.

The more complex, interconnected and interdependent our societies become, the more systemic risk exists and the less resilience we have.

So once we’ve assessed the risk as best we can, how do we decide whether it’s ‘safe’ . . .  whether we find the risk acceptable ?

It would be nice to think we weigh up the pros and cons in some kind of logical way, but we’re far too human for that. Our views on the acceptability of risk are subject to a whole host of variables and biases:

  • Is the risk familiar or unfamiliar – we’re more nervous about things that are unfamiliar ?
  • Did we chose the risk voluntarily or was it imposed on us – we accept more risk when we have chosen it for ourselves ?
  • How much control do we have ourselves over the situation – we like to feel in control. If you’re nervous car passenger you know this already ?
  • How does the risk relate to benefit – we trade-off risk versus reward, it’s why we do things we know are bad for us ?
  • How are probability and consequence related – for example we willingly accept a tiny chance of a very good thing happening, compared with the near certainty of  a slightly bad thing happening (loosing our money) when we play the lottery ?
  • How does the risk relate to loss or gain – we like to gain, but we REALLY hate to loose. We’ll make different decisions when considering loosing £1,000, to gaining £1,000 ?
  • Is the risk sudden or gradual – we are focused on sudden changes, and can underestimate the effect of gradual change (such as climate change, or our own weight increasing) ?
  • Is it an active or passive risk – we consider the risk of doing something differently to the risk of doing nothing ?
  • Do we have an emotional connection with the risk, that overpowers all our rationality – dread and phobias are often caused by traumatic past experiences ?
  • How is the risk presented and framed – describing something in a frightening way, and disproportionately focusing on the negative or positive aspects will affect our judgement ?
  • Who is presenting the risk to us – do we trust them, do they seem confident, are they sympathetic. We often tend to automatically oppose or support messages based on their source and our own prejudices ?
  • There is another vitally important question to consider when pondering your views on the acceptability of any given risk – who is taking the consequences of the risk, and who is benefiting from the reward ?

Our lives are full of risks, and we make decisions about them on a daily basis.

If we want to build a better future, we need to make better informed decisions about risk and what we consider safe – global warming, environmental degradation, pollution, food and water security, peak oil, energy options, biotechnology and GM, economic systems – how well do we understand the risks involved.

We should build a habit of asking critical questions about risk, and checking-in with ourselves occasionally about what we consider safe and why.

The world is complex.

Sometimes we might need to be prepared to change our mind.


Photo from Bien Stephenson  via Flickr

Life Lessons Learned Climbing a Deadly Volcano

A guest post by Eric, a blogger from the site Coffee and Warm Showers. Eric made a decision to ‘escape the rat race’ and lead a conscious life – quitting his job, moving to the Idaho countryside and having downsized and de-stressed, is now living a life he describes as ‘anything but ordinary’.

Living in the Seattle area for a few years now, you see Mt. Rainier from anywhere (whenever it clears up enough to see it, of course.)  It becomes the norm.  This enormous snow-capped mountain that towers over everything.  You tend to forget it is one of the most deadliest volcanoes in the world.  Just a piece of the sky.

One of the things I’ve never had a chance to do but have always wanted to is to climb a mountain then snowboard back down.  Luckily for me, one of my co-workers had this great idea to do just that on my last weekend in the area.  I jumped at the challenge.

There are things in our lives where we have to jump at an opportunity to do something.  Something we’ve wanted to do for a while now, but have never “had the time” or “money” to do.  I encourage everyone to take those chances.  Not only will you be glad you finally did it, but you’ll learn so much about yourself on the way.

Let me start off by saying this was, BY FAR, the most difficult hike/climb I’ve ever done.  I’ve done small hikes here and there, but nothing like this.  This was (in my mind of course) the equivalent of walking up 3,000 flights of stairs carrying 50 lbs. on your back…in the slippery snow.

The climb itself took us a little over 5 hours to get to our destination.  By the time we reached the top, we were tired, hungry, cold, but the view (as you can see from the top picture) was amazing and all worth it.

Although the climb up was over 5 hours long, it didn’t take long for me to catch on that climbing this massive volcano was much like life.  I started to realize the tips I was using as internal motivators would work as life lessons in “real life” as well.  I’ll share some with all of you now.

What were those life lessons?

1. You can prepare as much as possible, but always expect the unexpected – We packed a lot of gear, food, snacks, water, cameras, etc.  However when you get up there it’s a different world.  You feel completely vulnerable and there’s no way you can feel 100% prepared for anything.  We had about 6 or 7 avalanche/rock slides happen around us and when that’s happening, you keep your eyes and ears open always.  In life, you have to do the same.  You can plan your life, your career, your marriage but you must always keep an eye on it and maintain.  Never get to a place where you feel complacent and that everything will always be the same.  That’s when you’ll get side-swiped.

2. Only take what you need – As I mentioned above, we packed a lot of gear.  When you’re climbing there’s a fine line between being prepared and bringing too much.  The latter will cause you to tire quickly.  Just as in life, only take what you use and use what you have.  The more you have, the more you must maintain.  That’s physically and mentally draining.  Remember, life is a marathon and not a sprint.  Take on what you can handle and nothing more.

3. 10 Steps, 10 Seconds – The beginning of the climb was okay.  I knew I had to pace myself, but my ego still got in the way.  Let’s just say my “pace” was quick.  Once we hit the snow it was a different story.  By that time you’re almost completely drained and seriously thinking about turning around.  My buddy came up with a good plan.  We take 10 steps and then rest for 10 seconds.  At first I thought it wasn’t such a great idea since that would lengthen the climb quite a bit.  But it ended up helping us, mentally at least.  In life, things get tough.  It’s best to stop pushing towards the end like it’s a race.  Slow down, take small steps, and rest.  You’ll make it there eventually and when you do you’ll actually have the energy to enjoy it.

4. Take time to stop and look around – I’d catch myself getting focused on the climb up.  Looking down at my feet.  Thinking how much this sucked.  And then I’d realize, right behind me is a view many don’t see.  I’m 10,000 ft. up above the clouds and I’m not enjoying it.  So I’d stop.  Every now and then, I’d stop and turn around and take a look at what was going on behind me.  Taking myself out of the climb mentality and into the enjoyment mentality.  The same goes with life.  You have to “stop and smell the roses” as they say.  Life goes by too quickly for us to get caught up in the details.  Take a higher level approach and look at your accomplishments.  Look to your past but don’t dwell.  Look to your future but don’t stress.  Enjoy the now, keeping the past and future in your peripheral.

5. Everything is more fun with friends – No doubt about it.  If I hadn’t had my buddy to do this climb I never would have done it.  In fact, I wouldn’t have had the idea if he didn’t mention it the day before.  And I DEFINITELY wouldn’t have made the climb to the top had he not been there.  Use friends as support.  To help you through your mental battles in life.  And then once you get to those moments of enjoyment, enjoy those moments with others.  You’ll be a much happier person.

6. It’s always about the journey, not the destination – I caught myself constantly thinking, “I just want to get to the top so I can strap in and ride this thing!”  In the beginning of the climb it was a race to get to the top.  Towards the end, it was a slow steady walk but I was still begging to “just get there already!”  In life, you have to understand that true happiness comes from the journey and not where you’ll end up.  Your destination is ever-changing and the onlyreal destination any of us have is death.  So enjoy your journey there and stop focusing on where you’ll end up.

7. Live in the moment – Similar to a couple of points above, I caught myself many times thinking of other things while climbing.  I start my new job next Monday, I’m packing and moving all week this week, etc.  There’s so much LIFE to think about that I didn’t realize I wasn’t enjoying this opportunity I may only do once in my life.  You have to be able to turn your thoughts off sometimes and just be.  Live in the now and appreciate everything you have in this moment.

8. Listen to your body – It knows what’s up – Mentally this climb was tough.  But I knew I could do it.  I just had to constantly remind myself and give myself tips to make it.  Physically there were a couple of times where my legs stopped working.  Literally…my hip flexor would seize up and I couldn’t go anymore.  Instead of pushing myself harder, I stopped.  I took a break and got started again in a few minutes.  Life is the same way.  If you are a workaholic and you are constantly tired, listen to your body.  If you are constantly angry because of your kids or lack of support from your partner/spouse, listen to your body.  It’s telling you something.  Slow down enough to realize this and then resolve the problem.

9. Set small goals and reward yourself for achieving them – Toward the top, the 10 steps, 10 second rule was starting to get harder.  Not because I couldn’t make it anymore, but it was getting boring and I wanted to speed it up a bit.  So I changed it up.  I looked up the mountain, found a spot I wanted to get to and then pushed to get there.  Once I got there, I took a break usually longer than 10 seconds.  In life, you can only push yourself so hard before your productivity decreases.  Set smaller goals and when you reach those goals recognize them.  This makes it much easier to accomplish bigger tasks.

10. Try new things! – This climb itself was something totally new for me.  I loved it.  Even though I was dead tired when we were back at the car and I vowed I wouldn’t do it again, by the time I got home I texted my buddy (half jokingly) that next year we should summit Rainier.  When you try new things you experience something you’ve never experienced before.  New cultures, new ideas, new perspectives, etc.  It may have been a hard journey but totally worth it.  This allows you to continually strive towards growing as a individual and taking on new challenges.  This is what life is all about in my mind.


Take these life lessons and think about them.  Which ones resonate with you?  These are my life lessons so you may have some of them down already.  Maybe some are brand new to you?

Set a goal for yourself.  Focus on one of these lessons each week for the next few months.  Really focus on one lesson each week or longer until you find yourself regularly living by these.

Once you are keeping these in mind always (and any others that you’ve found) you will become a happier person.  You’re now conscious of how you’re living and taking control of your life.

There’s no better feeling.

RELATED ARTICLES – Money is NOT the Root of All Evil,  10 Ways You Can Have Enough Money and Stuff

Photo by Alaskan Dude, via Flickr

Eggs and Bunnies ?

A friend of mine has written under under the religion section of her Facebook page: It’s all about the eggs and the bunnies, right ?

Whenever I see it, it makes me smile.

Most Christians would agree that It’s all about Easter, if not exactly eggs and bunnies, and that Easter is pretty much all about forgiveness.

Our Western culture often seems far more focused on revenge than forgiveness. Our films and TV is full of examples of getting even and journeys of self-righteous vengeance. In sports people talk about settling scores and payback against the opposition. The debate on prisons and reform tends to focus on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. I know it’s hardly science, but type revenge into Google and you get 276 million hits, forgiveness gives 56 million.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – revenge is part of our basic human nature, indeed it’s one of our strongest emotions. In primitive tribal societies,without any other systems of justice, revenge served as both a way for wronged individuals to achieve emotional satisfaction, and also served as a visible public deterrent to others.

But in our modern complex societies, with rule of law, our desires for personal revenge usually result in far from positive consequences – perpetuating cycles of violence, entrenching division and splitting families. After all, it’s not as if those being ‘punished’ always resign themselves to a rap on the knuckles and changing their ways – frequently the response is further anger, resentment, and a desire to retaliate against the person doing the ‘punishing’.

As neighbours fall out, relationships break up and community relations break down, escalation can easily occur – in some cases leading to frosty avoidance or internet slanging matches, in other cases slashed tires or physical violence. It’s estimated that around 20% of the murders in the Western World are motivated by revenge !

Obviously societies need to have justice, and sometimes actions need to have consequences – but forgiveness is really about something else.

It’s the emotional process of letting go of personal feelings of injustice and resentment. It’s what we do in our own heads and hearts.

Research by Dr R Enright and others indicates that people who are more inclined to forgive others are typically happier and healthier, experiencing less stress, less depression and less disease. Forgiving those who we perceive have wronged us also means we’re less likely to carry unresolved resentment and anger into new relationships and situations.

It’s not so much what we’re granting the other person, but what we’re granting to ourselves that matters. Freedom to move on – letting go of hurt, loss and bitterness. Ultimately forgiveness is a choice.

Sometimes it might seem impossible.

But we can learn forgiveness, the best teachers being those who have themselves been able to forgive some terrible wrong done to them, such as with Abiola Inakoju or Linda Beihl, or in Sierra LeoneNickel Mines USA or South Africa and many other places around the world. Many more inspiring and remarkable stories can be found on the website The Forgiveness Project.

The two videos below might also provide food for thought – with the journalist and author Naseem Rakha on the left, or the Christian writer and minster Rob Bell on the right. Many more videos about forgiveness can be found on the Fetzer Institute Youtube Channel.


Similar articles – The Imam and the PastorTahrir Square

Photo by prakny.przewodnik via Flickr

Good Behavior

Can I ask you a personal question ?

Did you deliberately set-out to read this blog, or are you procrastinating, because you should be doing something else instead ?

We don’t always do what we should, do we ?

We get distracted, loose motivation, get bored, make excuses to ourselves and give in, or give up – then we eat the second helping of unhealthy desert, buy the expensive thing we don’t really need, or don’t do the revision we need to for the exam.

It’s as if there’s a part of our brain that rationally makes plans, has aims and objectives, and another part of our brain that needs to be persuaded to go along with it.

This isn’t news of course, we know this instinctively, and consciously attempt to manage ourselves, so that in moments of forgetfulness or weakness we stay on track. We leave notes for ourselves, we bribe ourselves with delayed treats and rewards, we put up motivational posters, read motivational quotes and listen to motivational speakers.

We also intuitively use similar techniques to try to influence the behavior of others – making fresh coffee or baking bread when trying to sell a house, in the hope that potential purchasers will associate the property with pleasant smells etc.

Changing our own behavior can be a very difficult thing to achieve . . . and successfully changing other people’s even harder !

Why ?

We might like to think we’re 100% rational 100% of the time, but unless you’re an android or a Vulcan, it’s simply not true. We are subject to subconscious or emotional, social and environmental influences and triggers, that direct our behavior at least as much, and often more, than our conscious selves.

The study of these motivational and attention based factors, and how we can make use of them to change our own, and other people’s behavior is called behavioral science. It tries to shed light and insight across a range of issues, including motivating ourselves to eat a healthier diet, tofinish writing a book weve started, go to the gym more, or simply get on with the housework.

Policy makers, businesses and many others would also like to influence our behaviour en mass – so we stick to the speed limit, buy their products, sign their petition or lend them our vote.

The acronym MINDSPACE is sometimes used to list a number of the key subconscious factors that influence our behavior – it stands for: how we feel about the Messenger, what our Incentives are, what everyone else is doing, or Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment and Ego.

A few examples:

- People are more likely to leave their table clean after eating if they smell cleaning products in the air. This is an example of priming, by using a subconscious mental connection.

- People tend to automatically be quiet in a library. This is an example of a social Norm ie: we all have a tendency to do what everyone else is already doing.

- People tend to want, and respond to, ‘anchors’; initial reference points – when they are considering unfamiliar. This is why charities provide ‘suggested minimum donation amounts’.

- People want to feel approval in the eyes of others; which is why teachers now increasingly use happy face stickers or stamps to give positive feedback to pupils – a happy face gives a subliminal message of being liked by others in a way that a tick doesn’t. Happy or sad face symbols are used as feedback  in other scenarios too, including energy bills and public bathroom cleanliness.

A recent fascinating report has been issued by the UK government’s Behavioral Policy Unit, that considers many of these factors in detail, and considers their application in public policy making and delivery.

But it’s a complicated picture, and sometimes our behavioral responses seem counter intuitive. One study set out to measure the effect of different approaches to dissuade the taking of firewood from an area of public forest. A sign asking people not to take firewood actually resulted in an increase in the amount taken – by raising the idea in people’s minds and making them more likely to act on it. A finding that won’t come as a surprise to any parent who has ever told a child ‘whatever you do, don’t touch this‘.

A further sign giving the same message and also showing a photo of a group of men taking firewood had the effect of increasing the amount of firewood taken even further ! The photo illustrated that other people were also taking firewood, and by showing a small group doing so collectively, indicated that it could be a social activity, rather than a solitary one – we like to feel we’re part of a group!

If we want to nudge ourselves to change our behaviour, then we can try to apply these insights. Want to motivate yourself to go to the gym more ? Try keeping your gym kit where you can see it to act as a visual cue. Try tracking your workout progress, weight loss etc, to give yourself targets and feedback. Go to the gym with a friend, to add an enjoyable social aspect, a competitive element, build in accountability and create a social group where the expected ‘normal’ behavior is going to the gym frequently. This is how weight-watchers works! Some of these affects could also be created by participating in  online social networks.

Finding effective ways to influence behavior and change habits isn’t just an interesting personal development issue – many of the most significant issues and challenges our societies face are essentially behavioral ones: from reducing carbon emissions and food waste, to developing healthier lifestyles and more ethical business practices. Often we have the best intentions, but somehow fail to follow them through.

Although it’s far from being an exact science, using visual cues, indicators, reminders, feedback, social expectations, punishments and incentives can help us influence both our own behavior and that of others. Real time energy monitors encourage greater energy efficiency. Using smaller plates and bowls will subconsciously encourage us to reduce our portion sizes. Signs highlighting that 99% of people don’t throw litter on the street may increase the sense of social disapproval for those who do etc.

The Jam song Absolute Beginners (as referenced by the behavioral scientist Paul Dolan in the video below) contains the apt lyrics:

“You can loose some hours just thinking of it. You need the strength to go and get what you want”


Photo by CGP Grey via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – The Art of Giving Up,  It IS the Winning and Losing that Matters