2021: so what now?

“As we get older and stop making sense . . .
Stop making sense,

Stop making sense,
Stop making sense, making sense”
Talking Heads, 1984

Over the past year, our expectations, hopes and dreams maybe, and assumptions about what does and doesn’t make sense to us have taking a massive whack on the head. We’ve had to make huge adjustments to what we think and expect about our day-to-day lives. Which is OK when we can weave it all into the story we tell ourselves about us, if it makes sense. I might not like it but if it makes sense that’s OK. The problem comes when it doesn’t.

At the core of our conscious existence is the voice inside our head, the narrator. Up to 4,000 words per minute of commentary, speculation, chaos theory and criticism, creative or otherwise. And our driving impulse is that the story being told must make sense. But as our knowledge of the world is only partial, our ignorance is necessarily infinite. Which means that the canvas of patterns and connections that we weave inside our minds is periodically challenged by events. And our response to this is anxiety and an urgent need to correct the story that is becoming incoherent. Continue reading “2021: so what now?”

A useful framework to understand anxiety

“Don’t they know, it is wrong. It makes me anxious”
The Housemartins, 1986

Anxiety exists above all as anticipation, our hopes and fears for events that we might see on the horizon but that haven’t arrived yet. Most of us have been living with greater uncertainty in 2020 than we have in the past; understanding our emotional response to this can be very useful.

Some key points that I’ll explore further:

  • Everyone experiences anxiety – this is “Normal”, and most people have an exaggerated sense that they are an exception when they aren’t
  • Anxiety encompasses stress and worry, but also ambition and happiness; indeed “a life that was anxiety-free would also be bereft of wonder, enthusiasm and excitement.”
  • Worrying about worrying is one of the most prevalent forms of non-useful anxiety in work. It distracts us from productive activity but many people see virtue in it because they equate it with caring

Continue reading “A useful framework to understand anxiety”

What Brexit shows us about the struggle to find truth

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth” Garry Kasparov

In common with much of the rest of the world, political campaigning around Brexit is increasingly about pumping out so many conflicting messages that undecided voters just give up on making sense of the different analyses. Which works as a tactic, and in the case of politics, there are always operators who believe that their ends justify the means. Politics is at the more extreme end of this when it comes to public debate as it all seems to matter so much. But as a process it means that the debate is dominated by interpretations rather than substance. Continue reading “What Brexit shows us about the struggle to find truth”

Meaning making machines: what do people do all day?

 “It’s completely out of hand. But I can see what’s going on, he’s trying to make up a version of events in his mind where what he’s doing is OK. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. Is he? Why? And is that what I’m doing too?” 

Yes is the answer to all of these. Creating a coherent narrative, which makes sense to us (no matter what) is a central function of being human.

When I was younger, my favourite book (by Richard Scary) was “What do People do all Day?” It’s a very intriguing question that I still find fascinating. The short answer was all kinds of “stuff”. Going from one place to another, working indoors and outdoors, shopping, eating etc. But the bigger questions behind the record of activity loomed ever larger: what for and why? From a distance we can look like a swarm of bees briefly and busily striving, fighting, achieving for no clear purpose before a quick expiration.

But with us there is a point. We can find what we do meaningful. Look at what we do when we genuinely consider it to be meaningless. On the whole we stop. Continue reading “Meaning making machines: what do people do all day?”

To describe something is to change it

“I had been thinking about it that way, but talking to you about it now, I’m starting to see that it isn’t and could even be the opposite”. About relationships with colleagues, decisions to be made, general questions of whether something is right or wrong, I’ve heard variations of this comment more than any other during coaching sessions. Why is it that the act of talking out loud about something changes our understanding of it?

During coaching, people often discuss subjects that are either confidential are that seem too personal to talk to other people about. Doubt, motivation, anxiety, confidence, purpose are all very important issues, but for many of us, many of our thoughts on these subjects occur as part of our inner monologue, the voice inside our heads. Continue reading “To describe something is to change it”

Plate tectonics: four ultimate existential concerns

I’ve been lucky to work with clients who’ve achieved a lot, who can tick the boxes that are conventionally called “success”. Achievement of a creative endeavour or business and financial accomplishment has been the cherry on the top of an engaged life. The journey towards achievement has been exhilarating, absorbing and often brought out the best in collaborators. But, when the battle has been won, when we get to the part of the film where everyone walks off into the sunset, something unexpected happens. After the elation there’s a hangover.

What is this dissatisfaction that is perversely thrown into sharp relief when we get what we have wanted? Great thought has been applied to this over the ages in religion and philosophy. Continue reading “Plate tectonics: four ultimate existential concerns”

What not why: going to the heart of the matter

© Andrew Watt

I once spoke with a client who was frustrated that a proposal he had put forward was being treated sceptically by his boss. He was doubly frustrated and hurt as the scepticism seemed to come from a suspicion that he was motivated by personal reasons rather than the best interests of the company. The focus of the conversation had switched from what he was proposing to why he was proposing it.

As a result, things were degenerating into a passive aggressive exchange about motives. He was also now doubting his boss’s motives and was developing theories that these resulted from a combination of personal weakness and a landgrab for further power. He’d discussed and refined these theories in conversations with others and had even begun to invest rather heavily in them as a validation of a number of other grievances he had about the relationship. Continue reading “What not why: going to the heart of the matter”