We are human BEings, not human DOings.
In the past two weeks, I have heard or read this saying, so popular among personal development professionals, no fewer than five times. Do you think the universe is trying to tell me something? I don’t know, but the repetition certainly made me pause, put down my eternal to-do list, and think.
This time of year, it’s easier than usual to get caught up in doing. Whatever your beliefs, the holiday season is a busy time. There are family gatherings, dinners with colleagues and clients, end-of-year parties with hobby groups and friends, and school shows and fetes, not to mention all the associated buying, wrapping, baking, cooking and decorating that we consider absolutely necessary to the festive fun. Add to that the pressure to complete work projects before taking time off, or use up budget before the end of the calendar year, plus any administration that has to be performed at year end… Yes, December is a month where DOING really does top the agenda for many of us.
It’s rather odd, when I think about it. Christmas, the festival I celebrate at this time of year, is really all about being and feeling rather than doing. The seasonal songs speak of “comfort and joy”, feeling merry, light and bright, and – my favourite, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, tells us explicitly that the greatest gift we can offer another person is that of love, giving our heart. The messages are all about who we are and how we behave towards each other, yet the actions we undertake are too often quite divorced from seasonal notions of cheer, hope and peace to all men.
So, this festive season, whatever you will be celebrating, I offer you these very practical and immediately applicable ideas for stepping out of (or at least turning down) DOING mode and putting a bit more BEING into your personal and professional life.
- Make a morning to-be list
Most of us have some kind of to-do list that is constantly being elongated, then shortened, then re-elongated. Some of us even extend to creating a daily to-do list at the start of the morning. A few of us (yep, me) even add one thing they’ve already done that day in order to have something to cross off straight away and feel smug about. But what about your to-be list? If your to-do list is your destination, what comes up when you think about how you want to travel?
Why not, alongside your to-do list (or indeed instead of, for the really brave of heart), make a morning to-be list, noting down HOW you want to feel, behave, and generally move through the day? It might say: gentle, methodical, calm, peaceful. Or perhaps: energetic, loving, enthusiastic. Or maybe: courageous, joyful, patient. At work, the to-be list might read: “be an approachable manager”. Or it might just say “today I choose to be flexible”. Write these things down to make them feel as much of a commitment to yourself as your list of tasks. Then, keep the to-be list in mind as you move through your day, letting them steer your reactions and choices.
- Make an end-of-day “I was” list
To bookend my previous suggestion, try taking a moment at the end of each day to think about who you were today and how you felt. Think about how you behaved, the choices you made, and the reactions you had all day and consider how you felt and how you were. You can even start from what you did to get to what you were. I spoke up about my doubts about our new marketing strategy in the team meeting: I was courageous today. I explained to my child why she couldn’t have sweets after dinner instead of just saying no: I was a calm and patient parent today. I ate salad for lunch: I was healthy and self-caring today. Thinking about your day in this way helps you remember that your worth does not reside in what you do but who you are and how you choose to be. This exercise gives you an opportunity to celebrate a different kind of achievement.
- Consider your to-be when making to-do decisions
Knowing how you want to be and feel (today or in life more generally) can really help when you have decisions to make, especially when you‘re having to choose between several – often conflicting – options. A simple example: when faced with the choice between going for a lunchtime run, working through and getting home early, or eating out with a colleague, your to-be list can help you decide. Going for a run makes me a healthy person, and I’ll feel disciplined; eating with my colleague makes me sociable, and I’ll feel connected. You can apply the same process in the professional realm. A team member regularly misses deadlines: how do I want to feel about the way I deal with this? What kind of person do I want to be? Let the answers to those questions steer your next move. By considering how you want to feel and who you want to be, you make sure that your BE is driving your DO, which will create greater alignment with your wider purpose and aims.
- Offer be-based recognition
So often in life, especially in the workplace, we receive recognition – that is to say positive feedback – for what we have done, the things we have achieved. While it’s good to get compliments on a brilliantly delivered presentation, a well handled negotiation or excellent quarterly sales, they don’t quite feed the soul the same way as a “You are” compliment. A compliment about who we are speaks to our essence and cannot be taken away, while a “you did well” is ephemeral and can vanish if we mess up or fail. Try offering yourself and those around you more recognition for what you/they are and see how it feels. What does it feel like to look in the mirror and say “You are insightful and perceptive”? Or “You are caring, loving and patient”? (As opposed to “You came up with good ideas in the meeting” and “You spent time making great cakes for the school bake sale”.) Tell your assistant “You are organised and methodical”. You can even make it an image. How would the newest member of your team feel to hear “You are a real breath of fresh air”? Or maybe your spouse gets “You are my rock”. The only rules are it has to start with “You are”, it has to be positive, and – above all – you have to mean it wholeheartedly.
In a world that values achievement and accomplishment highly, it can be hard to recentre ourselves as human beings rather than human doings. But doing so will not mean you get less done or that you’ll drop the ball; it will actually make the things you do more powerful because they will be more aligned with who you are and how you want to feel. The choices you make and activities you accept will be driven not by external expectations and pressures but by the very core of who you are, who you want to be, and how you want to live your life. Make your “do” a result of your “be”, and watch much of the hustle and hassle of your to-do list melt away.
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I was recently regaling a close (and willing!) friend with a few stories of funny things my children have said and done of late. For example, my seven-year-old daughter who loves to read Dog Man has taken to exclaiming “Oh boy, this is gonna be great”, which is hilarious given her cut-glass English accent. I was also recounting how, when my four-year-old son colours, he does so as if his life depends on it: the tongue is sticking out, he can’t keep from standing up on his chair, the concentration is so intense it’s almost audible. “Ah,” sighed my friend, “”We should all be a little more like Sam, I think – so enthusiastic and wholehearted.”
Her words got me thinking. I could definitely do with being a little bit more like my children – in many ways. One day, I will surely need them to teach me how to type a document using only my brainwaves, or to configure whatever we’re using instead of smartphones 20 years from now. The mind reels. But for now, there is already a lot I can learn from them. It may be the adult’s job to teach our children to read, swim and cross the road safely, but we can definitely benefit from taking a leaf out of their wise little books now and then – both in our personal lives and the professional sphere.
Here are my top seven life lessons we can take from children – our own and other people’s!
- Live 100%
Despite the fact that I devised my slogan “life with purpose and on purpose” years before having children, it is only since having them that I have witnessed someone truly putting this into practice. When my son is building with Kapla, his focus is absolute. It’s a full-body experience that absorbs all his attention. When my daughter is sewing, you can call her for dinner 10 times before she even looks up. Whatever children do, they do it wholeheartedly. Applying this lesson to my life – seeking out what’s known as “flow” – never fails to improve the quality of my experience. Coaching is already an activity that requires full presence, but when I consciously try to “be more like Sam and Alice”, I seem to take it to another level and am truly absorbed by my client. When I’m writing, turning off the phone and closing email makes it so much more enjoyable. Even if I’m just cooking supper, doing so with music on and a clear intention to nourish and care for my family add both value and fun to the task. In essence, this tip comes down to: be here now.
- Ask for what you need and want
If supper is served late, kids have no qualms about manifesting their displeasure. If they need to pee during a train ride, the whole carriage will likely know about it. Children ask for (ok, demand) what they need and are vocal about what they want. I think we’d all benefit from being a little more like this. So often, our resentment, anger and sadness are linked to unspoken needs and desires. Of course, the remedy is not to stamp your foot and throw a hissy fit, but if we all expressed ourselves more, and more clearly, we’d definitely boost our chances of reaching our goals and gaining satisfaction. In the workplace, this might mean making sure the boss knows you aim to achieve director status by the age of 40, or that your long-term goal is to move to the US office. At home, maybe you ask for help with chores, or create a family rota rather than sighing loudly as you fold laundry alone. With friends, it might simply mean daring to say “Actually, tonight I really fancy Thai food” rather than the usual “I really don’t mind where we eat – what’s your preference?”
- Own your feelings and show them
When children are sad, they cry. When they are joyful, they laugh. When they are young, at least, there are no feelings that are off-limits or shameful, and demonstrating their inner state comes naturally. As adults, to add insult to the injury of unpleasant emotions like sadness, anger or disappointment, we also experience meta-emotions. We have feelings about the feelings we are having, for example feeling ashamed of being lonely, or irritated that we feel envious, and we force ourselves to hide what we’re going through. We could all benefit from allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, without judgement and – when appropriate – to express it too. One way to facilitate this in the workplace might be for managers to be more vocal about their own emotions – perhaps frustration at a budget cut, or overwhelm at an extra project the team has been assigned. When they do this, they give their team permission to feel and share some of what they are experiencing too.
- Marvel and wonder
On the walk to school, my children are able to find way more than seven wonders of the natural world that will cause them to stop and exclaim, “Mummy, LOOK!” These marvellous findings might range from the grid patterns made by airplanes as they crisscross the sky to particularly large snails and solitary magpies (“Hello Mr Magpie and how’s your lady wife today?” they chorus). Despite my best adult instincts, I have now learnt to embrace these moments and seize the opportunity to look hard at what’s going on around me. To notice the carpet of conkers, kick up the russet leaves, smell the jasmine bush overflowing from one front garden on our route, laugh at the mini dog wearing a Father Christmas coat. The walk takes a little longer, surely, but it is a richer sensory experience, and the day starts on a note of enchantment and delight.
- Enjoy the journey
Further mining the rich seam of learning that is the school run (or the slow school walk in our case)… My children’s appreciation of our conversation and the things we notice on the way to school serves as a constant reminder to me that the journey is part of the adventure. This is fairly easy to keep in mind when your destination is a beach in Hawaii, but more challenging during a business trip. However, when on my way to coaching clients in Toulouse, Geneva or Lyon, I always try to make the most of the travel time, which could otherwise seem like dead time. Flights are a chance to read. Train trips with my computer give me time to write. Even a simple trip on the Paris metro can provide opportunities to check out posters for new films and exhibitions, notice changes in fashions, and (more often that you might imagine) observe random acts of courtesy and kindness performed for strangers.
- Put yourself centre stage
Have you ever noticed how often children say “I” and “me”? They are constantly talking about themselves – what they think, like, want, need… When they are recounting something that happened at school, they are very definitely the main character. If they are deciding between the pink sparkly t-shirt and the multi-coloured unicorn, the only taste they take into account is their own. Children live their lives centre stage, eschewing the kind of comparison with others that plagues us as adults and causes us to “should” on ourselves. All too often, we pay more attention to what others are wearing, doing, buying, achieving, than what we like, want and need. We can learn much from children’s ability to be the focus of their own attention.
- Let it go
As adults, we hold on to so much emotion and carry around so much baggage, thinking today about what happened yesterday, last month, last year, or a decade ago. Children, on the other hand, make like Elsa and just let it go. When the school day is over, it is over. When a Mr Hyde-level tantrum has been calmed, they switch back to their Dr Jekyll face in seconds. This ability to let things go is invaluable to our professional lives. Too often, we ruminate on a conversation with the boss, or mull over an upcoming presentation when we should be focusing on a hobby, a friend or our family. The more we can learn to leave the day behind when we walk out of the office (or clear the computer from the dining table/home office), the more we can contain our worktime and be present for our personal time.
Do you wince whenever you hear someone described as “living his best life” or “winning at life”, conscious that you don’t feel that is the case for you? Do you feel, deep down, that while life is fine, it could be so much more fulfilling and joyful? Working with a supportive, dynamic and insightful coach can help you make the big and small changes you need to ensure you enjoy a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me to find out how we can work together.
- Don’t analyse it. When you’re in a great mood, do you roll your sleeves up and get to work figuring out why you’re feeling so chirpy? No. So don’t do it when you’re feeling low! Often it’s simply inexplicable, so trying to identify all the things that are bringing you down will only pull those things front of mind and make you even more miserable. Accept that today’s an off-day and have faith that this too shall pass.
- Get up, take a walk. Make a cup of tea. Do a yoga video. Bake. Physically extract yourself from where you are and do something to – as the old-fashioned saying goes – “take you out of yourself”. Doing an activity that induces the famous state of “flow” can be helpful: art, writing, skilled manual work, like crafts, DIY. All these things require your concentration and help take your mind of your foul mood.
- Sink into it. If you can’t shake it off, revel in it. Throw yourself a full-on pity party complete with weepy film, chocolate and portable black hole to climb into. I find that giving myself permission to feel the sadness or anger or dissatisfaction helps dissipate it; what we resist, persists. I also find that after a couple of hours feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, I get fed up or annoyed with myself and end up doing something productive that changes my mood completely.
Do you ever feel like your life consists of simply keeping all the plates spinning? I know I do.
On good days, I look at all the crockery I’ve got under full rotary control and smile smugly. On other days, it can feel like I’m just barely keeping the plates from crashing down like a porcelain house of cards. Like recently, when my son’s teacher emailed one Wednesday evening to inform us she would be off sick until the end of the week. I found myself cancelling three appointments for the next day then looking after my three-year-old while completing writing assignments with unmoveable deadlines by working in a tag-team shift system with my husband, and schlepping my little boy into central Paris when I went for a medical check-up I’d booked months before and was not about to push back.
I was having a moan discussion with my husband about this feeling of chasing my tail when it occurred to me that my feelings of overwhelm were in part due to the metaphor I was using and, as a result, the story I was telling myself about my life. What if I wasn’t spinning plates, in fact? What if my narrative were different?
The stuff of life
The other realisation I came to while whining talking to my husband was that harking back to simpler days when I all I had to manage was school, friends and a few hobbies was pointless. Life is no longer easy; perhaps it never was. So many of us yearn for a simpler life, by which we mean one that is pared down and stripped back to the essential. A million wellbeing magazines and articles tell us that slowing down, doing less and BEING more are the answers to all our ailments. And it’s true that during the recent lockdowns the lack of places to go and people to see was actually something of a relief to many of us. However, while I definitely felt the pressure to DO and SEE and GO ease off under lockdown, I wouldn’t want to live that way all the time. Because isn’t some degree of plate-spinning in fact the very stuff of life? I don’t mean breathless rushing, double-booking and overworked stress, but the juggling we do to ensure the kids get to school, do homework, eat well, see friends and take part in hobbies; to plan holidays, weekends away, day trips and evenings out; to engage with our work fully and carve out fulfilling careers; to see friends, take care of our health and stimulate our minds. While it often feels like all these to-do items are weighing me down, keeping me busy, and causing brain-ache, they are all activities I have chosen for myself at some point. And they are not going away (nor would I want them to), so why bemoan the spinning plates? Why not simply bin them and find a new metaphor?
The story I’m telling myself is…
In her filmed talk “The Call to Courage”, the higher being that is Brené Brown shared how she uses the phrase “The story I’m telling myself is…” to defuse arguments with her husband. She offers it up as a way of expressing one’s own interpretation of behaviour or events that might not be accurate or real but which is “the story I’m telling myself”. It occurs to me that we are constantly telling ourselves stories about our lives. And the literary devices we use – like metaphors and similes, to which I am particularly partial – are not just descriptive but prescriptive. They don’t just express what we feel, they can create it. So, each time I picture myself in a circus ring with a big red nose on frantically spinning plates, my mental image stresses me out. So what if I changed the story I’m telling myself? What if I imagine myself as a strong and sturdy oak tree holding its branches high and supporting its lush foliage with grace and ease? My chest releases and I can breathe a little easier. The tree bends in the storm, but is flexible enough not to be broken. Sometimes it drops a few leaves, but nothing catastrophic occurs, and new ones grow. Occasionally a bird lands on a bough, adding a little extra weight, but the tree knows it’s just temporary and that it can survive. If we push my metaphor to the extreme (and why wouldn’t we?), the tree also knows when it’s able to carry more leaves and when it’s the right moment to shed a few and take a break.
What a difference that image makes! Suddenly the story I’m telling myself is one of capability, strength and stability as opposed to panicking, rushing and flirting with failure. It’s about me making a choice which leaves I allow to grow on my branches, as opposed to dancing to the tune of some sadistic ringmaster. One story empowers and calms me, the other robs me of agency – and sleep. In the end, I still have the same to-do list, and I haven’t used any self-help hacks to boost my productivity, prioritise and prune my relationships, or learn to delegate. I’ve simply changed the story I’m telling myself, throwing all those plates to the ground like I’m in a touristy Green restaurant and choosing a new metaphor that works for my peace of mind, not against it.
So, what would happen if you went all “choose your own adventure” on some of the stories you’re telling yourself? How might changing the way you imagine and describe yourself and your life offer you greater control, strength, flexibility, self-respect, peace, joy and energy? What new story will you choose to tell yourself today?
If some of the stories you’re telling yourself are keeping you stuck or no longer serving you, why not take some time to work out a new narrative with an experienced and empathetic coach who can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
I have been known to joke that at the ripe old age of 41 I do not feel any different from when I was 21, and in some ways that is true. In others, I am happy to say, it is not: I am definitely more confident and self-possessed now, and less concerned with what others think of me. So while the changes to my physical self that result from the passing years might be somewhat unwelcome, they are a fairly small price to pay for the huge advantages of wisdom accrued and perspective gained.
Indeed, I have often thought that as we move through life, one of our aims should be to acquire as much wisdom and insight as we can, compiling our own Desiderata or, if you are also around my age and grew up in the UK, you may remember Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen song (“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it”). In my years of coaching and extensive reading in the personal development genre, I feel like I have acquired more than my fair share of advice. Richard Carlson, Martin Seligman, Edith Eger, William Bridges – to name but a few – have all contributed to my understanding of the world and myself, and helped me negotiate life with greater ease, peace and grace. However, no nugget of wisdom from a book has ever been able to rival those offered by my nearest and dearest. Most often, it is their voices I hear whispering words of wisdom in times of trouble.
Recently, it is a little gem of my husband’s that has been keeping me on track: don’t listen to yourself when you’re tired. While it seems intuitive, this simple idea actually distils several important notions that can really help deal with an intrusive inner monologue and what I call “2 a.m. thoughts” – the dark thoughts that descend sometimes and make everything seem bad and wrong. Fully grasping its wisdom is key to harnessing its power!
The triple threat to good sense: Tired/Hungry/Cold
The first important point my husband has spent years reminding me is that no one thinks straight when they are tired, hungry or cold. When I’m tired, everything seems like an uphill climb and problems are insurmountable. When I’m hungry, life feels like an emergency (the real emergency being that I need to eat!). When I’m cold, I can’t focus on anything other than getting warm. This may seem blindingly obvious but it’s a circular problem – the very state that’s stopping you from thinking straight also stops you from realising that you’re not thinking straight.
When you become a parent, it is especially important to remember this as you spend most of your time tired and also a lot of time putting someone else’s needs before your own. As a result, you are usually tired, and often also hungry (I’ll eat once I get the baby down) and/or cold (kids love going to the park – even in the depths of winter!).
So, point number one is that when you are tired, hungry or cold, it is not the right time to analyse an issue, brainstorm solutions to a problem, or think through a major life decision. If I start down the road of thinking when “T/H/C”, my husband always reminds me just to set aside my thoughts for when I’m in a better place physically and – much as it pains me to say it since it seems to set a dangerous precedent – I have to admit he is right.
Listening to yourself is a choice
The second interesting thing about this advice is the notion that we have a choice about whether or not (or when) we listen to our own thoughts. We are all familiar with that little voice inside our head that maintains a non-stop monologue about everything from what we think of ourselves, others and the world around to our views on what’s being said on the news, a star’s choice of Oscar gown, or an advert on the side of a bus… It’s like a radio DJ curating our mental soundtrack. However, the difference with a DJ is that we reserve the right to turn off the radio, while we often give free rein to the voice inside our head. If we heard a load of rubbish expressed on the TV we’d mutter “Come off it!” and quickly bring up Netflix to watch something sensible and calming like Squid Game. But we have a tendency to feel obliged to listen to ourselves, even if what is being expressed is unkind, judgemental, critical, unreasonable, lacking in evidence, or quite simply untrue. When we realise that we have a choice about how much we listen to our own thoughts, it’s like we finally locate our own mental volume or off-switch. Suddenly, we can choose whether to give credence to our own thoughts or instead to turn down the volume or change the radio station entirely.
Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true
The obvious extension of giving ourselves the right not to listen to our own inner monologue is the realisation that our thoughts are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. How is it that you can go to bed feeling chirpy and wake up feeling like the world is against you? Your situation has not changed overnight, but your inner monologue and analysis of your life is radically different. Your thoughts have become negative, dragging your emotions down with them. But not every thought we think is true. Realising and internalising this is hugely liberating. When negative thoughts pop into your head, you have the option to assess them for accuracy before believing them and letting them affect your mood or behaviour.
So, in the spirit of Luhrmann’s Sunscreen: “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, it would be never listen to your own thoughts when you’re tired, hungry or cold.” And always remember that your thoughts are just thoughts, not the Gospel truth. You have a choice about whether or not to believe them – and indeed, whether to listen to them at all.
If you want support taking stock of your life and working out where to put your energy, holistic coaching with an experienced professional can help you figure out which thoughts are worth listening to and how you want the soundtrack of your life to be. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.