“Must”, “It’s Impossible”, “I’ll try” and other Tyrants

Lately I have been working a lot with young people. Students. Members in NGOs or student organisations. Some on their first job. Other interns in different companies. Beautiful, curious, intelligent, ambitious, willing to learn. Every time my workshops are an invitation to introspection. We talk about authenticity, emotions, personal values, mission in life. It’s a difficult exercise even for people more experienced, let alone for 19-20 year olds who are just starting in their life journey. I’m always happy to see how bravely the throw themselves into these inner conversations despite their youth, or maybe because of it. Then I feel their confusion and even fear when the answers they give themselves to the question “Who am I” don’t match what they have been taught to believe is “normal”, “good”, “compulsory”, “possible”.  “There is no job where I can be completely happy, I need to compromise if I want to be successful”. “I will be happy when I get really high up on the corporate ladder and for that I need to work hard on the things I’m good at, not necessarily on what I like”. “Money comes first on my list of values, but that’s only normal at 21; now I have to find the highest paying job possible so I can raise enough money to have my own business by the time I turn 25”. “You can’t do only what you dream in life”. “I can’t see myself doing the job I studied for, but I have to carry on because I’m to scared to try something else”. “My parents told me that life is not easy and I need to fight and make sacrifices if I want to succeed”. “I was told that these are my talents and this is the most appropriate career for me, the one that will make me successful”.  These are all statements I heard over time from young people that I worked with. And not seldom did I leave these workshops with a nagging question: When exactly...

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Man’s Search for Meaning

This is the title of one of my favourite books of all time, written by Viktor Frankl, a great mind and a remarkable human being, who survived the worst of the Holocaust only to come to the conclusion that, even in the worst of circumstances, we are still free to choose our destiny. Frankl was an Austrian Jew, a professor with a more than promising career in psychiatry, who refused an offer to emigrate to the US when the Second World War broke out because his parents had not been granted permission to leave Austria and he felt he couldn’t abandon them. This brave choice led him to a gruelling 3 year journey in the Nazi death camps, where he sat next to his father as he died and then lost both his wife and mother. He survived through a combination of unique attitude and a series of fortunate circumstances, or, as some may say, dumb luck – although I believe there was nothing dumb about his luck. He witnessed people becoming noting more than animals in their fierce struggle for survival in the camps. Inmates torturing inmates or robbing them of their last piece of bread only to prolong their own existence a little while more. But, amazingly, he also witnessed people becoming heroes, creating a meaning for themselves in that meaningless circumstance by helping others, often at a risk or even at the cost of their own lives. What is the difference between them? Between the brutes and the heroes?  His answer to this was that we, humans, have both these potentials in us. We can become brutes or heroes and the only thing that creates this difference is our own free will. We have a choice. Even when all other freedoms have been taken away from us, he said, we can still choose our attitude in front of those circumstances.  Frankl’s legacy to mankind, which he built in his very long life post death-camps (he lived to be 92 years old)...

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Life Equations: Control + Expectations = Disappointment

I recently started reading Chip Conley’s book – “Emotional Equations“. [vimeo http://vimeo.com/30383779] The book was Chip’s way of bringing some meaning back into his life after a period of emotional upheaval. It was his way of making sense of things that were happening for no apparent reason and, by writing it, he helped others do the same. One of my favorite equations in the book is this: DESPAIR = SUFFERING – MEANING What does this mean? Well, basically, the less meaning you give to your bad life experiences, the more you will suffer. Perhaps you’ll wonder how in the world are we to attribute meaning to the death of someone dear, or the loss of an important relationship, or the loss of a job, financial status or whatever other misfortune may come into our lives. Things just happen, right? Bad luck! Well, things are a bit more complicated than that, and there’s good news in this. We have the power to decide what an experience has meant for us, what it has taught us, in what ways it makes us a better person. We have the resources to look at our situation from a different point of view, finding the opportunities in the bleakest of times. But in order to do that, we first have to believe it is possible. Starting from Chip’s philosophy about emotions and the sometimes surprising ways they arrange themselves into equations that influence our state of mind, I’ve come to believe that life itself can sometimes be organized into what I call “irrational equations” that can help us make sense of our experiences, better understand our own thought patterns and ultimately lead happier, more fulfilled lives.  I have offer you several equations as food for thought. I’ve run into these in different moments of my life and realized that, once I’ve understood how they work, I’ve been able to change the way I live for the better. I’ll write several posts around this topic – this is only the first...

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5 Mistakes That Changed My Life

It is fascinating to me what an ambivalent role mistakes have in our lives. On the one hand we seem to come into the world wired for making mistakes and learning from them – you just need to watch a toddler experimenting with the world around her, trying to take her first steps and falling over and over and over again until she finally succeeds. If toddlers weren’t willing to make mistakes, they might never learn to walk on two feet, keep their fingers away from hot stoves and stop torturing the house cat by incessantly pulling its tail. On the other hand, once we get into the schooling system, mistakes seem to take on a new meaning altogether. Instead of embracing them as stepping stones for personal growth, we are being taught to avoid them at all costs. Children are rewarded not for how much they experiment and learn, but by how few mistakes they make – the fewer the better. Later on in life things don’t get better either. Work, at least in the corporate environment, is but a continuation of school in the sense that mistakes are strongly discouraged and their absence is rewarded. In our personal lives too, we are expected to conform and do “the right” thing, whatever that may be, according to the expectations of our families, friends, or of the society we live in. If success is measured by how many things you have – then we are expected to get good jobs, buy houses, cars and other material indicators of personal success, all the while making as few mistakes as possible. Thus, years later, we end up being caught in this suffocating web of social norms that, more often than not, come against our innate predispositions. So, what are we to do then? My revelation was that whenever my life took an extraordinary turn for the better, it was after I had done some sort of serious mistake, not after I had done everything “right”. Thus...

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Is That All There Is, Or Are We Missing Something? or…The Escape From The “Flatland”

Feb 16, 11 Is That All There Is, Or Are We Missing Something? or…The Escape From The “Flatland”

Posted by in Books, Thoughts/Ideas

“Flatland” is a book written in 1884 by the English novelist and mathematician Edwin Abbot. The book tells the story of a two-dimensional world inhabited by geometric figures – squares, triangles, circles and all sorts of others. All was well until one day a sphere visited Flatland and amazed all its inhabitants with the “tricks” it could do. Since Flatland residents could only perceive two dimensions, the sphere seemed a circle that grew or shrinked at will (actually it was rising and sinking into the plane of Flatland) – that was very confusing for Flatlanders. The sphere tried to explain the concept of the third dimension to a curious square, who, despite his great knowledge of two-dimensional geometry, simply didn’t get it. The whole idea of going up-down / left-right was totally ridiculous to the smart square, for whom left-right/front-back were the only options. When the sphere exhausted all means of explaining, it simply took the confused square “up” into its own world – Spaceland. From there he could see Flatland from above and was frightened to death. The square recalled: “An unspeakable terror seized me. There was darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing; I saw space that was not space: I was myself, and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony: “Either this is madness or it is Hell”. “It is neither”, calmly replied the voice of the sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three dimensions; open your eye once again and try to look steadiliy” I looked and, behold, a new world!” The square is awestruck. He bows before the sphere and becomes its disciple. When he returns to Flatland, he struggles to preach the “Gospel of Three Dimensions” to his fellow two-dimensional friends – but in vain. They were all as blind as he had been before the Sphere had taken him to Spaceland, and all others thought him crazy. This is a stroy Jonathand Haidt recounts in his book, “The Happiness...

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