Get up offa that thing!

Photo by Laura Rivera on Unsplash

Here we are in October, with the leaves falling and the sun shining in between all the rain. Back in the heady days of August I said “au revoir” to my Spoon-by-Spoon blog and I gave you good people a break from my incessant scribblings. But as we know, au revoir isn’t goodbye, it’s simply “until I see you again.”

The legendary James Brown puts it better than me:

“Say it now!
I’m back!
I’m back!
I’m back!
I’m back!

 
Get up offa that thing
And dance ’till you feel better.
Get up offa that thing, 
and dance ’till you, sing it now!”

Quite a few people said I should write it all up into a book. I duly slogged over the 75 hours of transcripts and did a PhD length Thematic Analysis (academic speak for working out the main topics). I started to write, spelling out this theme and that theme, but quickly fell into a stupor over the dullness of my writing and gave up at chapter three. I decided to write a blog instead and 70,000 words and 18 months later said goodbye to you all in August. 

I loved writing the blog and lots of you said lovely things about reading it too. But what about that book – it wasn’t a very auspicious start! I realised I needed a re-think. During my lazy summer afternoons lying on James Brown’s sofa I came up with a plan. What if I changed the premise? Less of a “I found this theme, then that theme, then another theme,” and more of a “I’ll take you by the hand and we’ll weave our way through these stories of change” type of book. One that was more in keeping with my blogs and less like reading a turgid doctoral dissertation. 

My Spoon-by-Spoon research was born out of other people’s stories, a collaboration of me listening and them talking. What if I turned the writing into a collaboration too? Someone suggested a little focus group, a band of merry readers to give feedback each week; add a bit in here, take out a bit out there, build it together. 

That was September and I’ve been on about the idea ever since – the main recipient of my wittering being my husband. He has just told me that he will leave me if I don’t start writing – apparently talking about writing isn’t the same thing as actually writing. And, whilst it’s tempting to take him up on his word, I think I need to stop procrastinating. So here I am telling you about my (our) next venture.  

If you’d like to join my bijou book club then please do get in touch. From this week onwards it’ll be a small commitment of a review of a short blog once a week and a bit of feedback on what you read. I’m expecting people to wend in and out over the months as their diaries allow. However, if you’re more than content to stay well away until it’s finished, then I’ll see you on the other side. I’m hoping Santa will deliver it by Christmas.  

Over and Out. 

 

Sooner Than Expected

Photo by Connor Betts on Unsplash

I know, I know… so much for taking a break – I can’t keep away. Here I am back at my regular Tuesday morning slot, writing to you. I will lock my laptop away after this, I promise. 

Whilst I’m closing the drawer on my blog it’s an opportunity to give my podcast an airing. I’ve recently thrown myself into podcasting with a series I’ve called “Tyranny of the Shoulds.” Each episode is a chat with people about their own shoulds; the first is “Chasing the Money,” how focusing on money in our careers can burn us out and make us miserable. 

The second episode has just gone live: “Milestones that become Millstones” – how we work so hard to achieve goals in our lives that don’t deliver what we expect. 

The third podcast will be out in September: “Lighting the Fire.” The Irish poet W B Yeats once said: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” So why do we spend so much time at college studying the wrong courses, doing what it expected, then pivoting later in life? 

You can listen to “Tyranny of the Shoulds” on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/4ywfa12RngJc54gPCjTSkI

Or on Apple podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-room-psy/id1577555682

Or on other platforms: https://www.theroompsy.com/tyranny-of-the-shoulds

If you like what you hear please do share the podcasts with others. Happy summer! 

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

We’ll meet again

Last week I wrote about the art of taking a break – time off from our endeavours to keep things fresh, to see the world through different lenses. So here I am letting you know that this is it – I’m bowing out. I may be back in the autumn with something similar, or something different, or nothing at all if the creative sparks don’t fly. I just don’t know. That’s the thing with endings – we’re not quite ready for a new beginning. It’s a liminal space between the past and the future. Hanging in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes.

Having totted up my Spoon by Spoon blog, end to end it’s over 70,000 words. That’s a book’s worth of thoughts. Why am I not writing a book? Whilst I ponder that question, here are some posts I’ve taken out for an airing:

So, we are at the end of the evening. Better to leave the party before we outstay our welcome. Speaking of parties, in the early 90s I was at college studying psychology. On a Friday my friends and I would head to the student’s union to sing, dance and be merry. At the end of the night the DJ would play Frank Sinatra’s My Way to signal that they were about to close; a segue between night and day, between revelry and study. As the lights went up my friends and I would link arms and high kick our way out of the hall and down the steps to bed.

Thirty years on and I’m Pavlov’s Dog. Watch out if My Way is playing – I’ll grab your arm so we can-can our way out of this blog:

“And now the end is near, So I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full, I’ve traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.”

But is high kicking the right way to finish? I might pull a tendon – I am 51 after all. Perhaps Vera is a better fit:

We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where,
Don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again,
Some sunny day.

——-

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog “Killing Ourselves for Work” on the same site. 

Learning the art of the break

Photo by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash

We learn from each other all the time. From our children, our parents, colleagues, clients and friends. Even Donald Trump has taught us a thing or two – the perils of fake tan and trying to tame hair in later life. He has also reminded us to trust our instincts. 

When The Donald was in The White House there never was a grand plan as some commentators had us hope. There was no higher dimension, no 3-D chess. Trump was clear about his approach to life thirty-four years ago, since he wrote this in his book, The Art of the Deal:  “Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose… I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”

There’s advice all around us if we choose to listen. We need to be open to guidance whenever or wherever it shows up. David is one of my coaching clients and he’s teaching me about The Art of the Break. I’m not sure he will like being stuffed in a drawer with Trump. However, David and Donald do have one thing in common, a love of Scotland.

David spends as much time as he can in the sea, the mountains and exploring for hours with his dog, whatever the weather. The problem is that David works too hard. He’s always on the go and the life-affirming stuff takes a back seat. He has a long list of other activities he’s always wanted to do but never has the time. Like learning to make surfboards, playing the cello, becoming a mountain leader and improving his open water swimming personal best.  

David’s dog after working on his open water swimming. 

David has an idea though – one he’s borrowed from Stefan Sagmeister. Some years ago Stefan was worried he was losing his edge. He was running a design studio in New York but felt his work was getting stale – churning out the same stuff again and again for his clients and he didn’t know what to do. It seemed to him that life was a series of blocks. Twenty-five years of learning, followed by 40 years of working, 15 years tacked on to the end of life for retirement, then time to pop your clogs.  

What if Stefan mixed it up a bit instead? Could he borrow five years at the end and use them earlier in his life? Rather than working and working, then stopping and dying, what about a different rhythm – working, pausing, working, pausing? He concocted a plan to take 12 months off every seven years. He would close the studio, re-energise, re-boot and learn new things. He tried it and a year later came back refreshed. The time away paid huge dividends with his work too. The designs he developed were much more creative and the spring in his step brought in new clients, so he increased his fees. The time away from the drudge helped him fall in love with the world of design again. 

My client David wants to re-create this but can’t take a whole year out. So instead, he will pause on and off for six months; periodically taking breaks to think, to try things out and fall in love with life again. For him it’s a road trip – a direction of travel in mind but the actual roads he will travel still uncertain. 

In our last exchange, this plan was already having an impact on David. Even the idea of it was unleashing a seam of creativity for him. “I’ve just agreed to rent my daughter’s shed from her – we gave it to her as a den but it’s now unused.” He’s going to turn it into storage so his partner can have an outbuilding as a pottery studio. “I’m really pleased with this solution – projects for all: me doing things for the family, my daughter’s first business, my partner getting back into making her pottery.” This is before he’s even taken any time off. “Oh and I’m joining my daughter on her riding lesson tomorrow.” You can hear the fizz in David’s words. 

Sometimes when we help others we forget to help ourselves. Working with David has encouraged me to stop and think about my own life. I’ve been writing this blog since early 2020 – 72 posts in a row. I normally love writing and can lose myself in it for aeons. But over the last few weeks I’ve been hacking at it a little, enjoying it a bit less than I normally do. I knew it really but didn’t trust my instincts – I didn’t know when to stop. I’m in a Sagmeister Situation – I need to take a break. 

Next week will be my last post for a while as I will take a few weeks off. Like David I’m not sure which roads I’ll take or where I’ll pop up in the autumn. But in the meantime, I want to thank you for travelling with me on this road trip around our careers and lives. 

……..

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog“Killing Ourselves for Work”on the same site. 

How long is a piece of string?

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

This is a good question. If you’re in the market for string you can buy it in many places. DIY store B&Q has 60 metres of cotton twine for sale. Their natural garden twine comes in at 50 metres. Mosey on down to supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and you’ll get general purpose string, although somewhat shorter at 40 metres. Other products and stores are available of course. “Caveat emptor” if your string comes up short. 

The literal answer is one route, but there are others too. The witty road could lead us here: Question – “how long is a piece of string?” Answer – “it’s twice as long as half its length.” Or the philosophical path might encourage this: “How long is a piece of string?” Answer: “As long as you want it to be, since you are the master of your own destiny.”

This question about string would sit comfortably in the pages of the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. One of the book’s stories goes like this: a group of “hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings” demanded that supercomputer Deep Thought must tell them the “answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.”

Deep Thought took a while to check – 7.5 million years to be precise. When it eventually came back with the answer, the hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings were quite cross. The answer to the ultimate question? That was 42. Now these beings had waited some considerable time and they felt really short-changed. They had expected something transcendent. Something divine. Instead, they got 42. “Why was this?” they asked. Deep Thought responded scathingly. Well, the answer was meaningless, to match the question. As philosopher Francis Bacon once said: “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.”

I’ve been in this situation many times. Questions asked that have no clear answers. Here is an example of an interchange I had with a client many years ago:

Client: “We want to create a new Human Resources strategy.”  Me “OK, great. Can you give me some background?”  Client: “No. But I would like to know this: what’s the price, duration and number of people you’d need to do the work?”  Me: “Well, that’s interesting… (me being diplomatic).” For this read how long is a piece of string?

What I really needed to know: a) was the old one no longer fit for purpose? Or b) was it aligned to a leader who had lost credibility? Or c) was it about engagement – did they need to get buy-in, rather than starting from scratch? Or d) a hundred other reasons I couldn’t imagine? We appear to need simple answers to difficult questions – read more here.

It’s also interesting that we need string to help us along. Why do we use these phrases instead of the actual words? Instead of “Spill the beans” – we could ask someone to reveal the truth. In place of “kick the bucket” why not say someone has died. These are idioms, phrases that don’t make literal sense, so we have to learn what they really mean. This is a big enough job for native speakers, but even harder for new learners. Here are some English idioms that only make sense once we’ve learned them:

  • A blessing in disguise (a good thing that seemed bad at first). 
  • Beat around the bush (avoid saying what you mean).
  • Bite the bullet (to get something over with because it is inevitable).
  • The last straw (my patience has run out).
  • Under the weather (unwell).
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink (you can’t force someone to make the right decision).

Sometimes idioms have similar meanings across languages. For example, in Poland they say kopnąć w kalendarz – which means kick the calendar; a far more sensible expression than kick the bucket. Here are some other interesting ones from TED’s international translators:

  • There’s no cow on the ice (there’s no need to worry) – Swedish. 
  • The carrots are cooked (the situation can’t be changed) – French. 
  • Pay the duck (take the blame for something you didn’t do) – Portuguese. 
  • Have tomatoes on your eyes (not seeing what everyone else sees) – German.
  • Take a dip or pour water over someone’s head (to cut off a relationship) – Tamil. 
  • A cat’s forehead (a tiny space, often used when speaking humbly about land you own) – Japanese. 
  • Sharpen an axe on the top of her head (she’s very stubborn) – Russian. 

But back to string. I’d like to purloin String Theory for my own use – I was never any good at physics anyway (read more here). Since it’s a theoretical framework why not create one of my own? So, here is my take on String Theory for when we’re not sure what to say. We can use this framework to:

  • Ask questions when we don’t know the answer – a favourite tactic of teachers all over the world. How long does it take to build a car? How long is a piece of string?
  • Baffle others when we’re also confused. Idioms like these are particularly useful if the other person is speaking a second language: Bob’s your uncle, different kettle of fish, all mouth and no trousers, cat got your tongue, pardon my French. 
  • Give yourself breathing room and time to think. The “it depends” clause is a good one here. It’s based on the argument that the length of a piece of string it’s derived from the accuracy of the measuring instrument. For example, you could take a long deviation into ancient Egyptian cubits. These were based on the length of a man’s forearm, which is hopelessly inconsistent. No wonder the pyramids are falling down. 
  • Distract, pivot and take the conversation down a different route. I remember my father had a jar labelled “bits of string” which sat on the top shelf in his DIY cupboard. He kept them just in case they might be useful. However, they were all too short for any sensible application. So the jar remained on his shelf for forty years. Create your own version by cutting string into different lengths (all quite short) and place them in a jar. Take this out of your bag when you want to divert a conversation and then go on to talk at length about string.

So how long is a piece of string? Long, short or somewhere in between.

……..

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. This week my interviewees are on summer holiday, but if you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog on the same site. 

Second photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

So close and yet so far

Welcome to summer! Normally a time to explore new places, eat different cuisines and stretch our horizons. But this year is different. Many of us will be vacationing closer to home. Holidays that will be far enough away from our neighbourhoods to feel like a break but reducing the risks by staying in our own country. 

You might be searching right now for that perfect trip away. If you are, I have some advice to dispense. If you’re searching on Google, then spelling matters. Naturalist weekends are not the same as naturist weekends. In the first we discover birds and animals. In the second we discover ourselves. 

It’s funny isn’t it, that we often mix up words that are close. Entomology is the study of bugs. Etymology is the origin of words. I’ve written about both… but can never remember which is which. Ontology is a type of philosophy that ponders the nature of our very being. Oncology is the treatment of tumours. Or what about more everyday examples? Stationary (unmoving) vs. stationery (pens and paper), compliment (to say something nice) vs. complement (things that go together). You get my point. The closer things are, the more confused we get. 

Isn’t this the same with religion? I’ll buy you a socially distanced dinner if you can explain the differences between this sample of Christian groups: Baptist, Episcopalian, Evangelist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Lutheran, Anglican, Evangelical, Assemblies of God, Christian Reform, Church of Nazarene, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, Christian Science, Quaker and Seventh Day Adventist. Or what about these 25 schools of Islam? Can anyone help me out?

Things that are similar also create tension. There’s something about being close that gets our goat – the nearer you are to me, the more I can see your flaws. Opposing countries are often geographical neighbours. Struggles frequently happen in close-knit families. The greater the proximity, the greater the conflict.

I’ve interviewed over 100 people at crossroads in their lives. Many talked about career change and the topic of families often came up.  Misha studied hard when she was growing up. Her family were high performers – doctors, lawyers, accountants. “I had a lot of pressure from family. Unspoken expectations of high academics and being a high achiever. I think the expectation, right from the offset, was that I would have a successful job.” 

So rather than following her own path, Misha studied engineering. Later she went into consultancy. She made a further move into industry and then another one to accountancy. “I was always trying to shift, trying to find something that I’d enjoy more.” 

When Misha goes to family gatherings people ask her what she does. “I still say I’m a management accountant. It’s a safe word because it’s a good job. If I said something else, like I’m a carpenter or bricklayer, I’d be judged for it.” The problem for Misha is that she has been doing what her family wants, so “I never found what it was that it was really passionate about. I think that I just got lost.”

When we caught up, Charlotte reflected on where she is in her career and what she wants to do next. “In terms of my family, I don’t discuss career plans with them at all. I haven’t done for years. Because I find that deeply unhelpful.” Part of the challenge for Charlotte is that her experiences are very different from her parents. “My mother has never really worked in the corporate world. She doesn’t really get it. She’s always been very public sector.” 

The rules of engagement are also different now. Charlotte recounted what her mother said when she quit her first job: “make sure when you resign on the right day of the month for your pension.” Charlotte was a bit exasperated and responded: “mum, it’s a company of 10 people, I don’t get a pension!”

……..

Dhaval is from India and went away to study. During that time, he had the freedom to do what he wanted to do so, it was challenging for him to come back home. “It’s in our culture. The situation is that parents are deciding for you the major themes of whom you might marry, what kind of work I should I do, choosing a career.” The freedom he enjoyed dissipated, and he struggled to fit back into his old life. “I still wanted to explore, but because my family insisted that I came back, I had to return.”

Alma’s stepdad was a partner in a professional services firm and her mother ran her own business. “It was all very high achieving, high achieving, high achieving. And that was all I knew.” Alma worked in Human Resources for years, even though it wasn’t the right career for her. “I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge to know that things could be any different.” 

Her family had lenses through which they saw the world and they were so firmly in place that Alma didn’t even know they were filtering the world.  “All I believed at the time was I had to do those jobs because I had to make that money. Because I couldn’t survive any other way. All that I’d ever known growing up, was that success was taking that approach.” Alma asked herself this question: “Oh my God, why did you do that for so long?” It wasn’t until she got to a breaking point that she started to “look at people and think ‘not everybody’s doing that.’”

Alma now understands these unwritten rules are just other people’s conventions. “It’s something I’m so conscious of because you want your children to succeed. But at the same time, that pressure, those messages about what’s a successful job, what’s a successful career, are so skewed.” In her current role supporting a career change programme Alma has talked to many people going through that same cycle. “They’re in these professional jobs and they’re just miserable.”

……..

Zee talked about her relationships with her family, particularly her mother. “I didn’t really feel I was a good fit in my family.” Zee is British and her mother is an immigrant who moved to Britain in the 1980s. Her mother came from economic and social insecurity which informed the way she saw life. “There were a lot of limitations in conversations with my family… there was no sense of the world and people being an exploration. You just had this fixed set of outcomes that you were trying to achieve.” This way of thinking was so different to Zee’s free-thinking and curiosity and this opposing style created turbulence for Zee through her teens and 20s.

I am a naturally inquisitive person, and to me every new person is an adventure into the unknown. And that is why I didn’t feel like I was a good fit. It was the precise opposite of what they brought me up to believe.” Zee’s family would say: “‘these are the kind of people that you should be engaging with.’ And I just thought, that’s very samey.”

Zee doesn’t blame her mother. “Unfortunately, she grew up scared of the world. The life she painted for us was very much characterised by fear and anxiety.” Over time Zee came to realise being yourself “isn’t something that you need to try hard at. This is something that you need to accept. That actually you are who you are. And you need to find a place in the world where you fit.”

It’s strange, isn’t it? The people who know us best, often don’t know us at all. Watching us growing up, knowing our strengths, you’d think our families would make world-class career advisers; clear about where we might excel, clear about what we might enjoy. 

That said, context is everything. We forget we all have filters and view the world quite differently. What our families see is never what we see (read this post for more). Often the intent is good – the guidance we’re given is to keep us safe. But what families often overlook is that what was relevant to them (at the same age or point in life) is not relevant to us now in the world as it is. It’s always useful to remember that even if we’re close, in many ways we are also very far apart.

……..

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog “Killing Ourselves for Work”on the same site. 

First photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

What we see isn’t there

When I was a child, I came across an old book of prints tucked away in a dark corner of the library. There was a particular print which caught my eye. It was called Relativity by the artist Escher. I was drawn in by the faceless people (or was it one person) walking up and down the never-ending stairs and the scenes outside the windows – each one right in itself but contorted into different planes when seen as a whole. 

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born on 17th June 1898 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. He was a sickly child who was sent to a special school at seven. Whether it was due to ill health or lack of ability, he went on to flunk all his grades. But one thing Escher exceled at was drawing. As a child he was always sketching (usually outside) – studying nature – things like insects, plants or landscapes. 

As he developed, Escher extended his range into woodcuts and lithographs and, over time, his creations became more and more complex. Strange and intricate scenes that baffled the eyes. Optical illusions that didn’t make sense. Impossible constructions with ladders going up and down all at once. He drew water channels that travelled the wrong way, carved fish that morphed into birds and those never-ending staircases – perhaps an inspiration for J K Rowling?

Relativity (1953). The official website published by M.C. Escher Foundation and M.C. Escher Company.

“The multiple staircases in the Grand Staircase led from platform to platform and went as high as the seventh floor where they came to an end. The stairs also had a knack for moving around the staircase chamber, usually when a student was walking up one of them.”  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Escher was an industrious artist producing 448 works in his lifetime. Sadly, he wasn’t accepted by the art world until late in life; his first retrospective in the Netherlands wasn’t until he was 70. Britain’s first exhibition of his work was at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2015 – 43 years after his death. 

Like fellow Dutchman Vincent Van Gogh, acclaim came after death for Escher. Van Gogh’s work is now front and centre in our minds and Escher’s work is equally popular. In fact, a 2011 an exhibition of Escher’s art in Rio de Janeiro attracted nearly 10,000 people each day. At over half a million visitors, it was the most visited museum exhibition in the world that year; over the last four years there have been another 36 Escher exhibitions in different countries. You can read more about Escher here and see his images here.

Escher draws us into his prints using optical illusions – little magical tricks for our eyes that really do intrigue us. Scholars are fascinated by illusions too – there is a plethora of academic research on them because they provide a window into our brains and how we process information. Illusions are categorised into groups – physical, physiological and cognitive. An example of a physical illusion is when we look at a mountain on a clear day. The presence of haze or clouds tells us something is far away. But, without haze, our brains trick us into thinking the mountain is closer than it really is. 

Two well-known cognitive illusions are Ponzo and Müller-Lyer.  Ponzo is on the left and demonstrates how one yellow line appears longer than the other. That’s despite the fact that they are both the same length. Müller-Lyer, on the right, uses lines and arrows to create the same illusion. 

Wikipedia

Figure-ground illusions are also popular and we’ve known about these for a long time. The Mimbres culture pot on the left is dated between 1000 – 1150 AD and the modern one on the right is a face/vase illusion, which many of us have seen before. 

Wikipedia

Illusions also do the rounds on social media. Remember the “The Dress – that viral sensation that blew up the internet in 2015? If not, it was a photo on Facebook that got 10 million views in its first week. Why? Because it was a perfect example of false reality: how we are utterly convinced that what we see is true, even though others see something completely different. Some people looked at the photo of “The dress” and were sure it was blue/black. Others swore it was white/gold. As I mentioned, perception is personal.

Illusions come up in the news too. This is a story from a few months ago about a container ship flying in mid-air (see the photograph here). There’s another example here of a different ship weeks later. We haven’t invented ships that fly, so what created these illusions? They were both was caused by “temperature inversion” – a large difference between the temperature of the sea and the air above. It’s a “superior mirage” – the same process that conjures up a false oasis in the desert. 

Boats floating mid-air, pools of water appearing and vanishing, it’s magical stuff. If we didn’t have the scientific explanation, we’d think we were mad. In fact, one of our challenges of living in a data driven world is that we place too much weight on the information we receive. What we see is more art than science. Our brains fill in the gaps – we make assumptions, we jump to conclusions. We are riddled with perceptual inaccuracies. 

Take photography for example. Sometimes we see a scene and think it would make a great photograph. We take one but are disappointed since it looks nothing like what we can see. Clearly, the fault lies with the camera. Actually, it’s because our eyes deceive us about what is there. The camera on the other hand is more faithful to reality.  Seeing and believing are intertwined and it explains why we often cannot agree with each other. 

We humans crave clarity – we love movies and TV shows with heroes and villains. We feel more comfortable when we place people in clearly labelled camps. Yet the world is more complicated than this – it is not neat at all. With too much information to process we end up reducing it down to a manageable size. We take out the outliers. We remove the bits that don’t make sense. We feel better because it fits inside a box. But we also add things in too. It’s worth remembering that at times we see things that are not there at all. 

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This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog “Killing Ourselves for Work” on the same site. 

Improve your life in six seconds

Om Mani Padme Hum.

Or, in its original ancient language of Sanskrit – ॐ मणिपद्मे हूँ

If you’ve done any yoga in the past, this chant might be familiar to you. There are debates about its meaning, but “Mani Padme” is often translated as “jewel in the Lotus.” The Lotus flower is ubiquitous across India, East and South-East Asia. Growing in flood plains and slow-moving rivers, the seeds settle on the bottom of a water puddle or pond and can remain dormant for a long time. The oldest known germination is from 1300-year-old seeds that were found in a dry lake in north-eastern China; probably why it’s seen as a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. Its reputation is also helped along by the fact the Lotus has been cultivated for over 3,000 years for its edible seeds, which are often used as a paste in Chinese pastries and in Japanese desserts.

As the Lotus flower grows up through the mud, it opens its pale white and pink petals to reveal an unblemished centre. Buddhism teaches that everyone has the potential to become enlightened; the way the Lotus grows in dirty ponds symbolises our own opportunity for purity and awakening. It is why the Buddha is sometimes depicted sitting on a Lotus flower. Overcoming pain and hardship in life to become enlightened, just as the flower grows in muddy water yet isn’t soiled by the mud. Many Hindu gods are also shown sitting or standing on Lotus flowers for just the same reason. 

As a chant Om Mani Padme Hum has been around a while – probably since the fourth or fifth centuries. It is the most widely used mantra in Tibetan Buddhism and it is also used in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. Try chanting it out loud slowly and carefully…. Ommm… M-an-i… Pad-me… Hu-umm – and you’ll find it takes around five to six seconds to say. This is important – more on this in a moment. 

James Nestor is an author and science journalist and his latest book is “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” which was published in 2020. It has been so popular that twelve months later it has been translated into thirty languages. Nestor says his book explores the “million-year-long history of how the human species has lost the ability to breathe properly.” Not breathing in the right way is creating huge problems for many of us – from snoring, to sleep apnea and asthma, through to autoimmune disease and allergies. 

Nestor travelled the world to explore breathing, not only to share his research with us, but also to support himself. He was interested on a personal level because he suffered from respiratory problems. Having joined a breathing class he learnt techniques that gave him real relief, discovering that sometimes breathing the right way can create better outcomes than diets, inhalers, or even drugs can do.

Science is starting to back up the idea that sound and rhythm can enhance our thoughts and feelings. It can help us to rest and relax and can also support our immune system. Nestor says that “the most efficient breathing rhythm occurs when both the length of respirations and the total breaths per minute are locked into a spooky symmetry – 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute.” 

Christina Rawls is professor of philosophy at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, USA. She has written this really interesting long-form essay: The universal forces of sound and rhythm enhance thought and feeling. She is intrigued by the backdrop of music and sounds in our lives and how they can provide “a scaffold for thought when logic and imagery elude us.” 

Rawls is also drawn in by Nestor’s research. She outlines his idea that breathing techniques which balance in-breaths and out-breaths have the same rhythm as prayer. She quotes him here: “when Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds … The traditional chant of Om … takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale.”

This natural rhythm is found across the world. Here is Nestor again: “Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian – these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefited from the same calming effect.”

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The wisdom of the ancients is therefore coming full circle… in six seconds. The new science of a lost art. Here are three ways you can improve your life in seconds:

  • Navy SEALs are not the first people who come to mind when we think about mediation and breathing. If you’re unfamiliar with them, SEALS are a special operations force, part of the USA’s Naval Special Warfare Command. They form into small units who operate covert missions, often behind enemy lines. Despite this, we can learn something from them: box breathing, or sometimes called square breathing. This is a technique they use to slow down their breathing and we can do this too – distracting our minds and decreasing our levels of stress. Simply count to four as you breathe in, then hold for four seconds, then count to four seconds as you breathe out. Hold there for four seconds and then repeat. 
  • Belly breathing is another exercise that can help you relax or relieve stress. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position. Put one hand on your stomach just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and let your stomach push your hand out. Try to isolate the movement here and stop your chest from moving. Breathe out through pursed lips and feel your hand on your stomach go back down. You can even use your hand on your belly to push all the air out. Breathe like this for three to ten times. Take your time with each breath.
  • You can read more about breathing in one of my previous posts “four simple things we need to thrive” along with three other things you can do to flourish – eating, drinking (water not alcohol…sorry) and sleeping. 

Of course, you could also imagine yourself sitting on a Lotus pad, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum.

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This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog on the same site. 

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

Painting with words

Photo by Henrik Dønnestad on Unsplash

I’m an Olympic swimmer standing in a bucket of water.” That’s how Marcia started our Spoon by Spoon conversation. She painted a picture of everything she needed to say in just ten words. Marcia is from Brazil and has worked in different countries, trying her hand at different types of roles. When we caught up, she was working in an embassy and felt trapped, with no career path and no opportunity to grow. This image of her confined to a bucket shouted loud and clear: she had great potential, but was held back, unable to show her full range. “This is exactly how I feel. I just feel I’m ready. I’ve got the muscles. I’ve got everything, but I just keep my feet there in the bucket.”

Marcia believes she can do more. “I know I have the strength and the capability of swimming in the whole ocean. I’m just standing in the bucket and watching everything around me. And that is very, very frustrating.”

Then what is holding Marcia back? “The frustration is with myself because at the end of the day, it’s me – I’m the one who needs to make the move.” She knows she wants to change but doesn’t know how. “I just overthink things and don’t really act. My issue now is to act.” She tells herself this: “’Even if I don’t know where I’m going, just walk. Even if I cannot see the steps of the path, I just need to keep walking.’”

It’s clear she’s annoyed with herself. “I’m going to be 40 years old soon and I still have a lot of work to do if I want to get to where I want to. I want to be able to get my own place one day. But for that I need to make more money. I imagined myself being a couple of years further on. I just trapped myself in this thing… this small bucket of water.”

I’ve written before about how we often think and speak in pictures. We turn to metaphors to describe how we’re feeling, often when our emotions are hard to explain in rational terms. They can be very powerful, giving a real sense of the depth of feeling behind our current situation.   

Stefania was an interviewee from Italy who talked about “running in circles.” She had her first daughter when she was young and it impacted her career as a management consultant. “I’m working three days a week. I have no promotion prospects and I cannot even do much training for my personal development because most of courses are on a Friday.” Stefania doesn’t work on Fridays. “You take a pay cut when you go part time, but you’re still working overtime because you always end up doing more than three days. It’s this vicious cycle.” You can hear the circular motion she’s feeling, going round and round and not getting anywhere.

Photo by Maxime Lebrun on Unsplash

Stefania has struggled for years – it comes out in her voice when she talks about being an outsider. A “black sheep almost…everyone is very determined. They know what they want. They want to progress quite quickly. And I just felt I was in the wrong place. And I wasn’t even sure what I was good at anymore. I was thinking I didn’t have enough time in my life before having a child to figure it out.” 

Stefania is torn between two different sides of her life – bouncing back and forth between them both. “Obviously I want to spend time with my family. But at the same time, I also want to figure out what I want to do with my career. It’s an important part of my life… you only have so much energy and you need to look after your mental health. So that’s when things started to drift. I was running in circles. I felt like a hamster on a wheel.” 

Here we are with Stefania, going round and round. “That’s how I used to describe it when I was talking to friends or family, or my husband. I keep on running on the wheel. I never stop. I don’t know where I’m heading.”

Painting pictures isn’t just for artists. Jack has a background in science and has followed quite a clear path. As he says “I was pretty good at the more academic subjects of maths and sciences and pretty poor at the kind of more artistic ones. My brothers and I joke with each other that we’re all very boring. My older brother did an IT degree, worked in IT. My younger brother did a degree in town planning and is a town planner. I did a degree in chemistry and I’m a chemist.”

We can still paint if we’re scientific and data driven, linear and structured. We’re just painting pictures that fit our experience. Here are some of Jack’s: “There is a feeling at the moment that I am just a small cog in a large machine. And there’s little I can do to alter how that machine functions.”

He talked about a lack of fit with the way his colleagues work. “There was a new demand – ‘can’t we get this out, we need this now!’ It felt very at odds with my more methodical way of working, where there needs to be time to examine a process and then get it right. Whereas their reality was ‘I don’t care – just bolt something together.’” Machines, bolting things together, cogs. This is Jack painting with engineering. 

Here is another example, this time a frustration in a later role: “Much of what comes into the university finance-wise is not related to teaching undergraduates. Universities are massive multi million (or multi billion in some cases) industries and with that you get an enormous amount of bureaucracy and politics. As a technician, who is at the coalface dealing with the actual students, I don’t feel there is any input or control over university policy – how subjects are taught, how budgets are laid out. I find the lack of control difficult.” Now we’re at the coalface. I can picture Jack there, pick in hand. 

Later in our conversation Jack leaves engineering behind to sail out to sea. He talks about a career change course he joined – how helpful it was being with others going through the same thing. “It gave me context, it gave me grounding, it gave me comparative experiences with others. The feeling that you’re not the only one going through this… at least you’re in the same boat as somebody else, instead of stuck out on the ocean on your own.”

We’ve come full circle, painting a story about water again. We’ve moved on though. From standing in a bucket to travelling in a boat out to sea. 

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This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog on the same site. 

Why nothing stays the same

There is no such thing as forever. We’re constantly shape-shifting – getting fatter, getting thinner, getting wiser, getting fitter. Meanwhile trees and plants are growing, buildings are changing, people are coming in and out of our lives, and our moods are constantly fluctuating, like clouds scudding across the sky.

We have a strange relationship with our changing lives. Sometimes we believe in permanence, that things will stay the same. When we’re deep in a hole, in the middle of a crisis, we fear we will never climb out into the light. Conversely when life is going well, we catch ourselves wishing, “please don’t end.” 

It’s a peculiar state of affairs – desiring the world to stop when we’re happy and hoping it will speed up when we’re not. Anyone who meditates knows it’s hard to stay in the moment. To be right here, where we are. Instead, we project ourselves somewhere into the future or somewhere back in the past. When we were children, we wished we were older. But now that we are older, we reminisce about when we were children.

I was on the Headspace meditation app recently, watching a video about glass. A permanent thing you’d think. So hard wearing and long lasting that archaeologists find Egyptian glass that’s 5,500 years old. But it’s made from sand – a thing so small and light it’s blown away by the wind. 

Sand is everywhere, making up 59% of the earth’s surface, yet it’s a simple thing, created from just two molecules – silicon and oxygen. When heated to a very high temperature silicon turns from a solid to a liquid. Then, when its cooled, it returns to a solid – easily moulded into a thousand different shapes for a thousand different things. Imagine a home without glass – no windows, mirrors, bottles, wine glasses, or shelves in the fridge. Or a car without a windscreen, wing mirrors, rear view mirror, or a sunroof. 

Glass can be endlessly reinvented – crushed, heated and changed into something else. According to Headspace – “a process that can be repeated again and again in a perpetual cycle, without the slightest loss in quality or purity.” It’s the same for us too. Whether we’re a beetle, a whale, an oak tree, or a human – we are just like glass. We’re made from molecules that disband when we die and coalesce at the start of life. We dissipate into the earth and reconnect into something new – a fish, a stone, another person. Our outer casings (a bottle or a human body) are fractured and splintered, yet our building blocks, the molecules, remain as they ever were. 

And this is the point of the Headspace video. Nothing is permanent, everything is shifting. So, on a difficult day when time feels like it is dragging, know that it will pass. And on a good day? Try to relish it, savour it, make lovely memories, because it will be gone in a flash. 

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This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog on the same site. 

Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan