How to Stay Calm and Present Regardless of What Life Throws At You

Photo by Robert Wnuk on Unsplash

Engaging life challenges us to be fully present and actively involved in our moment-to-moment experience, without clinging to joy and without resisting sorrow.

~ Toni Bernhard

Equanimity.

The act of greeting whatever confronts us with an even temper and steady reaction.

Cultivating this state is how we stay calm regardless of whatever confronts us rather than adding on top of our suffering with the emotions that come from clinging to joy and resisting sorrow.

When we face particularly difficult emotions or situations, without any training, it can be very easy to pile suffering on top of our experiences without realising it.

Toni Bernhard says:

Grasping at what is pleasant sets us up for impermanence dukkha because change is inevitable.

Resisting what is unpleasant serves only to add stress to what is already a difficult situation.


When I was first told by my doctor that there wasn’t much to do about my pain, I came home and was so angry I kicked a hole in my door.

During a summer, I had a few days when I didn’t experience any pain and it was so strange but I became extremely happy thinking that my pain had solved itself.

In both of these situations, I didn’t treat them with an evenness of temper. Rather, I allowed myself to become overly consumed with them which led to suffering later down the road.

 

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

 

Calm in the pleasant

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying to mean “evenness of temper means to kill hope”. It does not. As Martin Luther King Jr says:

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Rather, it means that we allow ourselves to fully experience the good times but not to expect it to last forever. When we remember that pleasant moments don’t last forever and they’re simply one of the ten thousand joys we’ll experience, it gives us the opportunity to savour the present more!

If anything, it’s simply a reminder of the truth. However, it’s not a depressing one when we come to understand that when one joy ends, it means another will come again! If I worry that the happiness is leaving, then I’m only adding to the extra sadness that I’m going to experience. It’s a funny little paradox.

“I’ll enjoy this experience while it lasts, knowing that, like all phenomena, it will pass and another experience will take its place”

Calm in the unpleasant

Now, this is more difficult.

Tough emotions tend to bring out sadness, fear or anger. All of these emotions have the uncanny ability to pull us into the darkness they create and keep us there. While we remember that these emotions will change and leave, it still seems hard to keep ourselves out of its gravitational pull.

However, in order to explore your emotions, you will first need to have some kind of calm and the ability to look inwards.

The main thing to realize is that the emotion won’t going to last forever. It never does.

How to stay Calm during pleasant and unpleasant experiences

This is tough stuff. To start our practice, we can begin with meditation and a few personal sayings. (Click here if you want a short beginners guide to meditation.)

  1. Meditate

Sit down with some alertness. If it’s more comfortable, lie down.

Asking yourself “what emotions am I experiencing right now?”

Then describe it neutrally. If you’re angry, try saying “Anger is present”. If you’re sad, try saying “sadness is being experienced”. If you’re happy, try “Happiness is in the air”.

Whatever it is, your aim while meditating isn’t to solve anything.

While we meditate, we want to acknowledge how we’re feeling and simply experience it. If you find your mind running away again (because that’s what minds do), calmly bring yourself back to the moment and see what happens.

If we go in with no expectations, then it’s going to make the entire process smoother. If we go in with expectations that we’re going to screw up or that we’re going to come out an enlightened person, we’ll only be disappointed.

This releases us from the burden of trying to keep sadness from ever infiltrating our lives and from straining our best to keep happiness from leaving. They both leave. They’ll both return at some point.

2. Utilise Positive Self-talk

Meditation is like practising before kick-off. What about when we become angry or sad, what do we do then?

  1. Describe emotions neutrally.

Like mentioned above: Take yourself out of the equation and just describe the emotion. This removes the force that personal attachment has when thinking about how we feel.

“I am sad” -> “sadness is happening”

“I am in pain” -> “pain is present”

“I’m really happy” -> “happiness is in the air”

2. Acknowledge ups and downs come and go.

A common theme recently – emotions come and go. To remind us of this, we can say the following:

  • “May we accept with grace both our successes and disappointments”
  • “This is only one of the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows”
  • “We can experience things without needing to fix them”
  • “Let’s not get lost in this moment but engage with it meaningfully”

Talking in terms of “we” rather than “I” helps reinforce the idea that I can talk to myself as though I am my friend. It’s worthwhile.

Equanimity is a small practice on the face of it but also remarkably difficult. It’s not something I have down completely but I can thank myself for the small times when I do manage to get it done because it helps me enjoy happier moments and not add suffering to the times I’m in a lot of pain or remarkably tired.


Some days it’ll go well, some days it’ll suck. Other days we’ll forget about it completely. We don’t hate ourselves for these fluctuations in progress. We treat these realizations with calm then move on. With time and practice, it becomes easier.

We’ll appreciate more that we’re simply a working draft with flaws, mistakes, sorrows, and joys.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

How do you remain calm during difficult times? 

Comment down below :)

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What Does ‘Improving Slowly’ Mean?

In the time that I’ve spent writing about various elements of improving slowly, I haven’t sat down with you and spoken about what it means. I hear the cries already.

“It’s bloody obvious! Rather than improve quickly – improve slowly!”

But I promise, there is more to it. I want to talk about the values of improving slowly and why they’re important.

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Photo by Cameron Kirby on Unsplash

The principles of slow self-improvement

Self-improvement is important to a lot of people. Especially to those who feel bad about their skill set and general abilities. Or to those who want to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

The literature is broad – much of it very good (and terrible, but we can ignore that for now). The experience of self-improvement is not spoken about as often as it could be. Largely because blogs and books tend to give advice (as my blog does too) without talking about what it’s like to actually live that advice.

I started my blog so I could do that but I feel that I’ve strayed from that (or never really started). So I’ve been thinking:

What are the principles of slow self-improvement?

When we challenge ourselves to go as quickly as possible (for whatever reason) it’s easy for that doubt to become more and more intense. It’s helpful to slow down, be mindful and enjoy the process of improving as much as we can.

This brings us to the first principle – We are working drafts

I explored this briefly in the last post on self-forgiveness. When we decide to improve certain things, we do so because we believe it could be better. However, it’s easy to slip into perfectionism without noticing. As a result, we might see how quickly we can learn something (in order to get rid of the deficiency quicker) or become overwhelmed by the task and never start.

There’s nothing wrong with learning quickly if we have the right foundation. If we start with the belief that we aren’t perfect and need to be, learning quickly will not solve that.

We take a mindful breath, assess our intentions and remember that we’re a work in progress. We always will be.

And that’s OK.

With this in mind, it becomes much easier to catch those harmful storylines which can often plague our thoughts.

“I’m not moving fast enough!”

“I’m not smart enough to learn this so quickly”

“I’m falling behind!”

And instead of focusing more on the improvement and being kind to ourselves in the process, it becomes much easier to lose ourselves in the storyline or give up when we realise that learning a language or writing a book isn’t as sexy as we first imagined.

Improving slowly is about improving with compassion.

Self-forgiveness is one facet of self-compassion. There are a many others. Small things such as:

  • Cultivating kinder thoughts towards yourself
  • Allowing yourself to relax
  • Appreciating how far you’ve come and your courage to keep going

In the journey of self-improvement and as a result improving the world, it helps to start from a foundation which isn’t infected with hate. Of course, this takes time – I struggle with it every day. But it’s a worthwhile struggle.

One day I’ll see myself in the same positive light that I see my friends and family. I hope the same for you.

Another important principle of slow self-improvement is a deeper adoption of helpful habits.

When we improve slowly, we spend more time with the habits we want to adopt. As a result, we’re far more likely to keep the habit than for it to be a fad.

For example, a study from University College London showed that it can take an average of to 66 days to form a habit rather than the conventional “21 day challenges”.

Next, we resist apathy and cynicism – and fight against it.

Apathy and cynicism are only around the corner and come knocking when we experience multiple setbacks. We must remember that we cannot give up on ourselves. Especially when it is most tempting. Simply remembering that we can be champions for ourselves is a helpful reminder to remain engaged with the world.

Even in the simplest form. There have been times when all I’ve done is reminded myself “I want to be engaged in my own story”. Then gone back to bed.

It can be difficult, but on reflection I’ve understood it as an act of compassion.

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Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Lastly, we become better one step at a time.

It is better to work with focus instead of attempting everything at once. To do this, we slow down, take a mindful breath, and take it step by step.

Conclusion

This journey of improving ourselves and adding value to the world is a life-long one. Our time is valuable but this doesn’t mean we try to complete things as fast as humanely possible.

I ask that we slow down. Savour our improvement and as a result develop a healthier relationship with setbacks and disappointments.

While we improve, we’ll experience many of our ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.

And that’s more than OK.

Onward we go to improve ourselves and improve the world. With presence and mindfulness.

We improve slowly.

Here are the principles again:

  • We are working drafts
  • We improve with compassion
  • We spend a lot of time with positive habits
  • We resist apathy and cynicism – and fight against it
  • We become better one step at a time

As always, thank you for reading. If you found these principles helpful, please share! Let me know what you think of them below :)


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Resist Apathy and Cynicism

The problem of apathy has been on my mind for years. Especially during the times when I don’t care about anything including myself.

The almost chronic absence of care towards others, events in the world and yourself – apathy. But it often does not dance alone. Its partner – cynicism – usually takes the lead.

It’s a state that we’ve all experienced at one point or another for varying lengths of time and during the longer stretches of time where apathy was at its strongest, I started to think more about just how damaging it can be for how we view the world, other people and ourselves.

Maria Popova puts it well. Apathy is a “symptom of resignation” and cynicism is a convincing self-protection mechanism against it.

The problem with cynicism is its ability to convince us of truth where none is to be found. “oh the world is complete shit”, “it’s never going to work out anyway” “There’s no point in trying”. Tired phrases yet we’re enticed to believe them because we no longer have to try or care if they are true. Of caring. We no longer have to spend energy on finding the good or changing the world for the better because our efforts will be futile.

Cynicism becomes tempting when we surround ourselves with negativity and as a result “prove” to ourselves that the world is shit and can never get better. It becomes believable because it is based on something even if that is a very skewed and narrow perception of the world. Often, if we lose ourselves in the news without the understanding that negative news sells better than the positive, we mistake it as the only way to view the world and other people. From this we utter misguided statements like “being positive is presenting a false perspective of the world” when it could be making it more balanced. It would be a grave mistake to assume that the only facts in the world are presented in newspapers and 24 hour news cycles.

However, this mustn’t be mistaken as a plea for blind optimism. Such mindsets can be as harmful as blind pessimism as hope for a good world without any critical eye is naïve. This is a reminder that examining the world honestly does not mean we should examine the world negatively. It is very possible to be rationally optimistic about the world or at least not assume everything is so bad that there’s no point in caring about it.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of normalising the bad because we assume that’s all there is then convince ourselves to stop caring. This becomes particularly pronounced in the world we live in at the moment. Western politics seems to be growing more divisive at the front line of things and also within personal discussions. It creates barriers (figurative ones, President Trump) and these needn’t be strengthened by the simple fact that they’re allowed to stand in the first place.

We can afford to care. We can afford to be optimistic when the facts allow it. We can afford to ensure that bad doesn’t prevail over good by allowing the bad to become normal.

It’s unhelpful to think that we’re powerless for that does not grant enough credit to the good that we can do to each other and on smaller scales. We we allow for good acts to become a habit rather than the rare accomplishment, they can also become as common as we say please and thank you.

It requires we keep people other than ourselves in mind. Whether it’s as simple as not interrupting the other person or buying them a coffee for no reason other than you want to, you can do good for others in way that’s appreciated greatly.

It’s something I’ve tried to include more in my personal days and I believe it has paid off. Not because I’m waiting for a special thanks at the end of the year. It’s a valuable habit that fights and actively resists against the prey of cynicism, apathy and hate.

These do not need to fill my day. Nor do I need to drag others down. For I want others to care. To appreciate the world and the helpful people in it. It helps keep us away from darkness and cold. We move closer to warmth, appreciation for the small and a desire to change things on a bigger scale.

To end, I quote Maria Popova directly:

Yes, people sometimes do horrible things, and we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. There is so much goodness in the world — all we have to do is remind one another of it, show up for it, and refuse to leave.


As always, thanks for reading :)

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Simply Be.

This is my birds and the b talk

We sit, stand, lie and stay still. We close our eyes, relax our face and breathe in deeply to the slow count of three. Hold it and notice how everything stopped, if only for this moment, for you to focus on this one breath.

Now the time to breathe out begins. Again to the count of three.

We notice how the calm air feels on our upper lip or how our chest falls as our lungs slowly empty.

The world has slowed to the beat of One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three.

That’s what it means to simply be.

Taking the time to find pockets of stillness in your day is important for it is one of the few times where we cannot be consumed by the anxiety of the future or beaten up by regrets of the past. No longer living at the pace of other people’s agendas or taking the frequent journey into our negative thoughts.

The thoughts that bombard us and attempt to dictate how we feel are allowed to pass for what they are. Unimportant.

As with many people, I’ve had multiple moments when I begin to worry nearly endlessly about what the future holds and my inability to control what’s ahead of me. It drags me away from the good things that I’m probably experiencing right now, no matter how small. But sitting down to meditate reminds me to notice the present. To enjoy it for what it is.

It does not force calmness onto any person but it begins to cultivate a habit of staying calm in the face of stressful moments. The act of remembering to appreciate the present instead of getting lost in the future. Taking time to be instead of imagining the worst.

The worrying slows because we don’t attach judgements to the thoughts that fly through our heads, nor do we linger and follow them. When we are still, the thoughts leave our minds with the same speed they joined us with.

Observing this is remarkable. It separates us from the thoughts we have about ourselves and the other things out there in the world. Ever so slowly I begin to understand why there’s so much joy in being as still as possible. There are many really convincing thoughts that fly through our heads – usually about how bad we are at something or a flaw that’s “obviously” irreparable. Spending more time building pockets of stillness into our day forces us to slow down. And more importantly, it doesn’t mean that we analyse the thought in order to determine whether the thought it true for that is a battle easily lost.

We can let it pass. Attach nothing to it. No judgement, no reaction just acknowledgement.

By doing this, we come to better understand that so many of the thoughts which plague us leave our heads then join us again. Then leave again. They aren’t stitched into the fabric of our minds.

This isn’t easy. Stillness doesn’t cure depression or anxiety. It builds appreciation of slowing down and experiencing the day more on our own terms.

We Simply Be. We do not live for the future nor dwell in the past. We experience how we are at the present moment.

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Pockets of stillness can be difficult to make and difficult to sustain. Especially if you can’t find an immediate reward to the practice. To that I say, simply keep trying – it’s worthwhile.

Meditation is a practice not a solution. It’s something you do and keep doing. In the process, you appreciate its rewards. The journey doesn’t end when you’ve reached your first “moment of stillness” – these pass too. With stillness, you won’t find perfection every day. What you can find is a separation from hectic thoughts and negative judgements. For all you do is be.

How can you build more pockets of stillness in your day?

  • Meditate for 2 minutes in the morning.
  • Slow down when you eat, appreciate the flavours and smells of your food.
  • Take 15 minutes of your morning and make it yours. No time for emails, messages, or mindless web browsing.

And so on.

Remember, to simply be, we…

…sit, stand, lie and stay still. We close our eyes, relax our face and breathe in deeply to the slow count of three. Hold it and notice how everything stops, if only for this moment, for you to focus on this one breath.

Now we breathe out. Again to the count of three.

We notice how the calm air feels on our upper lip or how our chest falls as our lungs slowly empty.

The world slows to the beat of One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three.


As always, thanks for reading :)

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Care About The Important, Intensely

Create more. Consume less. Add value.

I live by these values because I believe they help me contribute to the world in an important way. Everyone is in this world together, and there’s something special about helping others without retreating to malice or hatred. Adding joy multiplies happiness but adding darkness only subtracts.

Of course, I ask myself (probably too often) for the point of living by these specific values. I haven’t been moved far beyond finding it helpful with creating a better world. Why spend my time creating instead of consuming? Why care about people other than myself?

Perhaps these values aren’t necessary but they are important, to me and I think extremely helpful for many others. So, I’ll keep them up and live my life accordingly. That’s the aim at the end of the day. To be a person of integrity.

Having this conversation reminded me of the book I recently finished. When Breath Becomes Air.

Paul Kalanithi, an upcoming neuroscientist-neurosurgeon who found he had terminal lung cancer, wrote a book. He spent his time in his life trying to understand what makes life meaningful. To do that, he wanted to wrestle with death and the mind. And he did so with grace and did so with quality. That alone is special. Just caring intensely about your craft because you think that it’s a moral duty. He didn’t view his work as a job but he viewed it as a calling. Even while he had cancer.

From all the pain he suffered, a question arose. Can you live with integrity while visiting the doorstep of death?

He answered that question with a resounding yes. Not with his words but with his actions. He never once said that he was going to fight cancer and beat it. For it’s somewhat of an unhelpful metaphor. To beat cancer. What if you lose? Does that mean you lost a battle? Apparently. But were you really participating in it in the first place? It does seem like something that just happens to you rather than something you engage with. The same seems to follow for many illnesses.

Despite the decision to not use such metaphors, the book showed me you can be a bit more generous here. Perhaps the focus of beating cancer or suffering in pain isn’t on whether you survive or the suffering ends. This way, your actions aren’t defined by something you may not control. Rather, it is on finding your values and making sure that you live in accordance with them as best you can. It means spending your time thinking about what is important to you and following these things intensely.

By living your life as such and always pursuing the good, by caring about people around you and never letting them out of your mind, by finding yourself and living as yourself the best you can, that is when you ‘beat’ whatever it is you’re facing.

It’s difficult to say that when you fail to live as yourself, as the values you care for, as a person who does good, you lose. Some things you simply cannot control and for those things, you should not be blamed for. In some cases, you can’t even control your efforts to do so.

But with the things you can control and hold dear to yourself, it is those things which define you. Don’t let illness or negative life events make you malicious or cynical. Don’t let it tear you away from the values you hold dear and most definitely don’t let it steal integrity from you and throw it into the night.

As the poem goes: “Do not go quietly into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I’ve found that ‘rage’ doesn’t have to mean anger. There are always going to be many moments of pain, suffering and death but this does not mean we must lose our will to care. I’ve found there can be so much more to the day if we try to care about it. Whether that’s talking to a friend and enjoying their smile, finding your favourite spot in the library, walking to work and hearing friends enjoy a joke or waking up and thanking yourself for trying to just get by for another day. These are small and my desire to care more isn’t accelerated by the fear of death. Kalanithi’s work is a helpful reminder that it is possible to live with integrity in good and poor health. And for that, I thank him.

We start with finding what is important to us and caring about it intensely.


I haven’t written in a while. I apologise – I’ll be back at it soon enough.

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Why we sabotage our goals (and how to stop it)

 “The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work.” – Peter Drucker

We all have good intentions. Whether it’s intending to lose weight or intending to donate to charity, they exist but as we’ve probably experienced, our intentions don’t always translate to action. Some studies argue that up to 50% of our intentions are never realised through action.[1]

To put that into perspective, let’s say that your doctor wrote a prescription and intended to sign it the next day for you to pick up. Would you think they’re good at their job if there was a 50% chance it was never completed?

Of course not.

Yet, we do it to ourselves all the time.

Intending and only intending to complete personal projects is a great recipe for guilt and lowers the credibility we think ourselves as having. Good intentions – without any action to follow – have much less value than they otherwise should have.

Failing to follow through on things reluctantly is understandable. Sometimes things that are out of our control prevent us from doing things.

But why, with all the best intentions in the world, do we wilfully sabotage our own goals?

 “I deserve a treat!”

This phrase pops up in a variety of different forms and it turns out that this thinking is what explains why we happily put our goals on hold for a “treat”. Even though it probably isn’t warranted, helpful or even wanted.

Cat Taylor, Thomas L. Webb and Paschal Sheeran decided to find out the different justifications we use to undermine our intentions.

99 university students were asked to nominate an unhealthy snack they ate too much of and record how much they ate during a week. At the end of the week, they asked how often they used certain justifications just before eating it.[2]

There were six groups of justifications:

  • It’s available
  • It can be compensated for
  • It’s different
  • I deserve it
  • I’m curious
  • It’s irresistible

These are all very familiar. Red Velvet milkshakes are rarely available but different, irresistible and pique my curiosity. I certainly believe that I can compensate for it later even though it’s quite difficult to do so.

The justifications above explain our tendency to indulgence and undermine our intentions.

The final part of this questionnaire asked them to rate how much they intended to halve their consumption of the unhealthy snack on a scale.

Four weeks later, they answered how much they ate of the nominated snack. Thankfully, they ate much less.

However, after some fancy stats work, I don’t need to (and can’t…) explain right now, their findings became very interesting.

Firstly, if you used one justification, you were far more likely to use more.

Secondly, the stronger the intention to not eat food, the greater the effect of these justifications on how much they ate. For those with weak intentions, justifications mattered much less.

“The more people justified indulgence, the more snacks they consumed despite holding strong intentions to avoid doing so”

Even if you hold strong intentions to not eat certain snacks, it’s extremely easy to run away from that intention. Simply use a justification that melts away all potential guilt.

How do we stop the self-sabotage?

For one, realise that it’s happening. I didn’t make much sense of the categories before I had read this study but now I notice it happening all the time.

They just creep up on you and can happen quite quickly. It’s even worse when you’re with other people who come up with random justifications on your behalf. Does this sound familiar to you?

self sabotage

 

Tell your friends to help you stick to your goals instead of enabling the opposite. It might require some tough love and you might dislike them for not allowing you to do something briefly. But you’ll benefit from it.

These justifications appear because there is a clash between short term and long term desires.

Should you have the cake now or not? You want to have the cake but also lose weight. You can’t do both at the same time so the justifications come out of the woodworks to make choosing the short term desire easier.

Of course, in the long term, it’s unhelpful and you’ll have to pay for it later.

Let the urge pass.

Urge surfing is one of the most helpful concepts I’ve ever come across. In short, you notice an urge and just stay with it. You don’t act on it as soon as it happens – you just watch it. Notice how it feels. Does it make you feel anxious? Angry? Worried?

Whatever it is, it passes with time. And usually quite quickly – they don’t tend to last for longer than half an hour.

Yes, it’s difficult. However, it helps you understand that you don’t need to act on every want that pops into your head. Many of these wants are caused on purpose by advertising but understanding that they don’t need to control your every action is liberating.

You can focus on the goals you truly want, at your own pace.

Daily takeaway

When you notice yourself wanting to procrastinate, eat too much, lie in bed all day or anything that might stop you from achieving your very important goals be sure to ask yourself:

  1. Is this what I really want?
    1. Is it part of the big picture for me?
  2. Does my justification make sense?
    1. It’s unlikely you’ll compensate for a big mac by walking up an extra flight of stairs

Then:

Let the urge pass.

You’ll slowly stop sabotaging your own goals and finally follow through with your personal intentions.


[1] Sheeran, P., Intention-Behaviour Relations: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, 2002

[2] These justifications were found during their first study – they weren’t forced upon the participants. Otherwise that would be a huge framing problem.

[3] Study used: ‘I deserve a treat!’: Justifications for indulgence undermine the translation of intentions into action by Cat Taylor, Thomas L. Webb and Paschal Sheeran

[4] Interestingly enough, there was a third study which showed that the justifications weren’t just ad hoc explanations for their behaviour. They can be primed to appear again. If you spend your time justifying your actions in a completely unrelated activity, you’ll be more likely to do the same in future activities.


As always, thanks for reading.

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Celebrate Your Effort – The Outcome is Less Important

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying.”

Dalai Lama XIV

Many of us, at some point in our lives have been obsessed with accomplishments and what it takes to get there. We have goals that we really want to achieve and then say that we’re going to do as much as we can in order to get there.

What happens when we don’t?

Do we blame ourselves for not doing enough or just accept what happened and become proud of our efforts?

It’s likely the former and that is a problem.

The end is all that matters

There is an unfair emphasis on the outcome of the work rather than the work itself.

For example:

“If we don’t win, what’s the point in trying?”

“If I didn’t get an A on the paper, why did I bother working so hard on it?”

“Since didn’t get that internship, I’m not trying for something so competitive next time.”

When we make the outcome of our efforts the only important part of the goal we have or project we try to complete, we become disappointed. This discourages to trying again in the future due to fear of simply being disappointed again.

The obsession with outcomes is a problem.

It’s can important cause of anxiety (what if I don’t get to where I want to be?), strong self-criticism (I’m terrible for not getting to where I want to be), anger, sadness and the like[1].  Failure is far more likely to be ego shattering:

It hurts a lot

 

As a result, we will be better off slowly removing our stringent attachment to the outcome of our actions and simply experiencing things as they are and as they come.

The Myth of Control

In a very American Dream fashion, many of us believe that if we work hard, we will be successful. For all the Olympic swimmers, thriving business women and award-winning students, the reason for their success is because they worked hard. Clearly, a part of that is that if you don’t work hard you won’t be “successful”.

Are both sayings true? Let’s think about them.

  • “If you don’t work hard, you won’t be successful”.

If we think of success as accomplishing something by yourself, it’s unlikely you’ll accomplish anything if you do nothing. It would be like saying you want to write a book but never sitting down to write. In The Aspiring Writer, we can see two writers having the intentions to write but continually avoiding it.

Of course there are a few outliers who can get extremely lucky. Donald Trump. To a number of people, he is a successful businessman who owns a number of luxurious real estates. However, lest we forget that he was given a very generous small start of $1 million. No one picks where they were born and as many philosophers say, it is a “lottery of birth”.

Onto the next one:

  • “If you work hard, you will be successful”

By saying this, we argue that hard work is the sole cause of success. It’s short and snappy but runs very close to telling the future[2]. There is no guarantee that working hard will lead to success especially if we take extremely risky ventures.

For some events, you have more direct control over them. Losing weight is an example. If we work hard to expend more calories than we consume, we will lose weight. The path to the goal is clear and laid out for you – though not easy to achieve.

For others, you have much less control over what happens even if you think you have a lot. Academic grades are an example. They do not reward effort, but content. You may work hard on an essay (or inefficiently and make the work very hard to do), and still produce a poor essay. Or you could work hard, but have a particularly harsh marker who allows their personal bias to affect their grading. You couldn’t have controlled that at all.

Or you apply for a job, spend ages on the application, but have your desired job taken by a personal friend of the CEO.

Or you could train for years in a sport, only to get injured or beaten by people who are have genetic advantages.

A large number of hidden factors affect the outcome of events in ways you cannot control. Blaming yourself for something that you cannot control is a great recipe for near uncontrollable self-loathing because there is no path for action. Only a path for thinking about your apparent short-comings.

This isn’t to say that we should say if you’re successful you were only lucky. That’s going from one extreme to the other. Rather, it is saying that success definitely comes with some good fortune and it ignore that influence is unfair on those who haven’t received similar luck.

Allowing yourself to commit to something and working at it consistently is likely to open yourself up to more opportunities. Those opportunities, you might view as lucky but it would be you who put yourself in the right place at the right time.

A helpful way to put it is this:

Your hard work makes your desired outcome more likely but never guaranteed.

Because of this, we should celebrate and assess the effort that we put into achieving things without hating ourselves if we fall short.

After some calm reflection, perhaps you realise there is more you can do. Slow down, assess the things you can improve upon and pledge to take action. Then do so.

If there isn’t, then there isn’t anything to do apart from accept things as they are and as they come.

Defining yourself by the outcome of your actions is unnecessary. It regularly leads to an over-inflated ego or excessive self-criticism.

Spend time celebrating your effort and your actions. It’s the one thing you have the most control over.


[1] I asked my GP who in turn asked a psychologist – I don’t know how to reference this otherwise. One method for identifying this was bad events or failures tend to become personal (this is my fault) and permanent (this because of who I am).

[2] Which none of us can do.


More reading:

Create without expectation

Let go of your attachment to the outcome

Zen habits – attachments


As always, thanks for reading.

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