Category Archives: Inspiration

Atomic habits – Discipline is taking that break

When I started reading Atomic Habits by James Clear I thought it couldn’t possibly contain a lot of new information. The concept overlaps with so many other books that I was sure most of the book would be repetition and I mostly read it to tick it off my list. What I underestimated is how useful the repetition of good ideas is and how much I needed to reframe and adjust my habits to being at home most of the time.

Behavior becomes a habit when you do it consistently. It often seems easier to create bad habits than it is to create good habits. The main reason for this is that bad habits often have an immediate reward attached to them, while with good habits the reward is delayed. If you’re a smoker, having a cigarette relieves stress and a craving immediately. If you’re a runner the endorphins take a while to kick in.
Your habits should be aligned with the way you want to live and the person you want to be. A smoker, a runner, a reader, or a cheater. Your habits are often how people describe you and how you might describe yourself.

I started working from home full-time around mid-March. At first, I mostly noticed the positives. I became more productive because I didn’t have to commute and because there were no distractions. The structure and consistency of the days and the lack of work-related dinners and events in the evening meant that it was much easier to manage my irritable bowel syndrome. As spring had just begun and the weather was acknowledging that fact, it was lovely to be outside and I took daily lunch walks.

At some point during or just before the summer, work started to pile up again. And even my introvert, structure loving brain was getting bored with what felt like an endless repetition of the same day. I started to skip my lunch walks to get more work done. I felt like I was being disciplined by focusing on my todo list, but my motivation and productivity were starting to falter.
When I started reading Atomic Habits I realized that it required more discipline and would be more sensible to take regular breaks. It turns out that taking regular breaks without an external trigger is surprisingly hard.

The book gave some clues. Habits that stick are obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. My number one job was to find a way to make taking breaks more obvious.
When I had a few days off I decided that I would use part of my time hanging around the house not-working to come up with something to motivate myself to take more regular breaks while working from home. I’m pleased to report that mulling over a concrete problem in your mind while lying on the sofa can lead to tangible results.
I came up with a surprisingly low-tech “solution”.

  • I bought 12 small cards with fun pictures on them
  • On all of the cards, I wrote one activity that can be completed in about 10 minutes. Examples are:
    • Take a walk
    • Make a smoothie
    • Do a 7-minute workout
    • Stretch
    • Do laundry (it might surprise you to hear that this is the easiest one to step away from the screen for)
  • I stuck a small piece of string with 5 tiny pegs on it to the lamp behind my screen, right in front of me
  • The cards are laid out next to me each morning and the idea is that at the end of the day, I have at least 4 cards hanging on the string, representing 4 ten minute breaks

Most days I have 2 or 3 cards up at the end of the day. Having the cards lying next to me provides a very helpful reminder, but it still requires discipline to get up and take the break. Discipline requires energy and energy is often in short supplies when I most need a break. I have some more work to do to make taking regular breaks a habit and I suspect it will always require some discipline as continuing work will always be the most obvious and easy. A break is more satisfying once you are taking the break and after you’ve taken it. As with a lot of good habits, the gratification is delayed. And worth it so I’ll keep working on it.

The Inheritance

When reading the book of a play it can be hard to get into the story. The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez doesn’t have this problem. The way the story is told is very smart. It’s understated. The topics are heavy but they are dealt with in what feels like an almost breezy way.
A group of men want to write a book and we are following along as their story takes shape. When things get rough, we pop out of the main storyline to the writers talking about the story and the characters.
The book is intense and peaceful at the same time.
The writers remain unnamed. They are young man 1 to 8 without specific backgrounds and stories. It’s the characters they create that are being brought to life.

In the end we’ll all become stories. But the same life can end up being a wildly different story depending on who tells it and what is put into focus. We naturally see the world from our own point of view. We are by definition the literal center of our own lives. Do you see yourself as the hero or the victim? Are you the star or the supporting character?

In the book Toby wants to be the hero. He wants his life to be grand and compelling. If the past or the present aren’t grand enough he will tell the story so that it fits his narrative. Eric is one of the very few people who know Toby’s real story. He loves Toby and supports him in his attempts to become a successful writer.
Eric feels that his own story is unremarkable. He is happy to let Toby take center stage and to allow him to shine.

Eric likes to stay in the background and let other people grow. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout his life. I’d like to argue that it’s often those who feel unremarkable who go on to do extraordinary things. They don’t do it for glory. They might not even realize that what they are doing is special. When you point out their achievements to them, they often reply with “but I only” as a way to downplay their efforts and impact.
People like Eric are good company. They bring selfless joy to others while the glamorous and extravagant mostly think about themselves.

People focused on winning and being successful might not even notice who they are hurting while trying to achieve their dreams. I don’t think they are malicious. A lot of them are driven by insecurity and a need for affirmation. They would probably benefit more from therapy than from success.
After all, when you do become successful, people you don’t even know are watching your every move. Criticizing even the tiniest (perceived) stumble to compensate for their own insecurities. It’s a vicious circle.

For Toby, success also doesn’t bring what he had hoped it would. Like many who are relentlessly chasing success, he leaves behind a path of destruction and his story fizzles out well before its time.
What I’m trying to say is pay attention to the people around you. Don’t take your friends and family (and co-workers) for granted. Also take notice of people who are just passing by. To paraphrase Tim Minchin:
“Be kind. If in doubt, double down and be kinder. Not only will it make your life better, but it is really good career advice. So just be kind. It will bite you on the ass if you’re not.”

Be kind to the Eric’s in your life. To the quiet people around you who are providing support in the background. Who have a big impact by helping others find their strength and grow. We all want to be happy and live a rewarding life. We just have very different definitions of what rewarding looks like.
Don’t harass a quiet person for being non-demonstrative. Still waters run deep. They might be making extraordinary things happen.
I, for one, hope that one day I can be as selfless and as patient as Eric Glass. He’s as beautiful as the story that brought him to life.

The Demon-Haunted World

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains how science works and why skepticism and critical thinking are important. The book is probably more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1995. With the internet at the center of many of our lives and social media allowing everyone to publish and share information, it is critical that we are able to evaluate what we see, hear, and read.

With a lot of non-fiction books, I feel that they are longer than necessary. After about 70% it often feels like the author repeats themselves or like there are too many examples to illustrate a concept.
The Demon-Haunted World is the opposite. It starts a bit slow for me. That’s not surprising as the book aims to explain science and critical thinking for someone with no prior knowledge of either.

The subjects that Sagan touches on are very broad. He details the injustices of the witch trials and talks about people who think they have been abducted by aliens. The parallels that can be drawn between them are interesting.
There are also people, especially in the US, who believe that aliens live among us and that the government knows this but is covering it up. Perhaps that explains a thing or two about the “situation” in the White House today. On the other hand, if there are aliens who are smart enough to travel through galaxies I don’t see how they would let Trump happen. Or, if they couldn’t stop it I assume they have buggered off to their own worlds again. Who would stay for this car crash if they didn’t have to?

Most people who claim to remember things that didn’t happen are genuine. They believe that they were kidnapped by aliens. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Our memories are incredibly unreliable. It’s easy to make someone “remember” something that never happened. A remarkable example is the fact that Reagan during his presidency regularly told stories from his past that turned out to be scenes from films that made a strong impression on him. It’s also quite common to remember a memory from someone close to you as your own. Our minds are fascinating but unreliable.

To support our fallible brains Sagan has included a “baloney detection kit” in the book. Here is my top 5 from the kit:

  1. Look for independent confirmation of the “facts”
  2. Arguments from authority don’t carry more weight than other arguments. Arguments from experts do carry more weight but are still open to scrutiny
  3. Try not to get overly attached to your own hypothesis or opinion. Keep an open mind for new and better ideas and hypothesis (but if you open your mind too much your brain might fall out)
  4. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain needs to hold up to scrutiny, not just some of them
  5. Ockham’s razor: if two hypotheses explain the data equally well choose the simplest one that introduces the least amount of new assumptions

What I like about Sagan and this book is his focus on how to communicate. By “waxing superior and contemptuous” about skepticism and science you are unlikely to convince anyone. Skepticism can come across as arrogant and heartless and it doesn’t have to be either.
We all cherish our beliefs and when someone challenges them this can feel like a personal assault. Whether your beliefs are related to aliens, witches, religion, or science doesn’t matter. Sagan asks “to temper our criticism with kindness”. To apply finesse when we share our believes and opinions. We all have different backgrounds, which means that we come to these discussions with different toolkits and baselines.

The way Sagan talks about curiosity, kindness, and communication inspires me. It makes me excited about communicating complex things in simple terms. About making people feel safe but also interested in learning and gaining knowledge.
I’m not a scientist myself. I don’t naturally ask a lot of questions. Even in a fairly simple conversation, I have to remind myself to ask questions. I’m not sure why. Part of it has to do with the need to process new information before I feel comfortable enough to voice my opinion about it. Maybe another reason is that for several years while in school the safest option was to be invisible and not draw attention to myself.

The Demon-Haunted world makes me want to be more naturally curious, but it mostly makes me long to be a writer or a journalist. I would love to try and share science, skepticism, and critical thinking in a way that allows people with all sorts of different believes to open their minds a little bit. I might figure out how and where to do this eventually. Until then I encourage you to read The Demon-Haunted World. There is something in it for everyone and Carl Sagan made communicating about science an art form.

Every one of us is, in a cosmic perspective, precious.

Fed Up – Is Emotional Labor Crushing Your Spirit?

I’d had Fed Up by Gemma Hartley on my e-reader for a while, but was hesitant to start it, as I was afraid it was another relentless read about misogyny that would crush my spirit. I eventually started reading it while on a snowboarding holiday with enough exercise and positivity around to counter any potential sadness.
While the middle section of the book could have been snappier (this is true for many non-fiction books in my opinion), the beginning of the book made me realize something about my behavior in relationships. While the book mainly talks about romantic relationships I feel that it applies to friendships and professional relationships too.

The book is about emotional labor and how women are still doing the majority of it. Emotional labor is emotion management and life management combined. Emotional labor includes remembering to send birthday cards to friends and family, remembering to get the laundry done before anyone runs out of socks and knickers, knowing what everyone’s favorite meal is and making sure all the ingredients are on the grocery list and generally noticing when something in or around the house needs cleaning, replacing or tidying. Trying to remember all these things, worrying that you might be forgetting something and making sure it all gets done can be draining. It’s an invisible and unpaid mental burden.

To be clear, emotional labor is not so much about who’s doing the work. It’s more about who remembers that it needs to get done and who worries about it. Imagine that you have agreed with your partner that they take out the bin, but you have to regularly remind them that the bin is full or that the trash will be picked up tomorrow. That reminding needs to be kind and considerate, otherwise, you risk getting into a fight. If you have to remember them more than once it’s going to be even more difficult to ask them kindly without losing patience and without making it feel to them like you’re nagging. The amount of energy that you need to invest in the asking is almost not worth it. It’s tempting to do it yourself.

While I don’t have a partner or kids this did open my eyes about my role in many relationships, both in the past and today. I’m a bit of a control freak and I like everyone to be taken care of, which can lead to me trying to think for a lot of other people. It’s not that these people can’t think for themselves, or don’t want to think for themselves. I’m so on top of things that I don’t even give them a chance.

In the book, the author is going through the steps of trying to divide the emotional labor in her household equally among her and her partner. As with every problem, the first step is realizing what’s going on. What’s causing the frustration and resentment that she is feeling? When she figures this out (and writes a widely read article in Harper’s Bazaar about it) the next step is to try and explain the problem to her partner. This is more difficult than she expects and it requires patience. The chances of convincing your partner of your point of view while shouting it at them during an argument are very close to zero. You’ll need to invest time in explaining it while both of you are calm and able to have a proper conversation. Probably more than once.

Even after she’s made her partner understand they struggle to improve balancing the emotional labor between them. Eventually, she realizes that she is the one blocking improvement. Every time her husband takes care of something he does it differently than she would have done and she criticizes him that he’s doing it wrong. Sometimes telling him off, sometimes even redoing his work. Only when she realizes that she is sabotaging his efforts things start to improve.
If you feel like you are picking up more than your fair share of emotional labor be honest with yourself. Do you give your partner, friend or colleague a fair chance? Or do you step in to ensure perfectionism (aka things getting done your way)?

The beginning of the corona-crisis for me was a good reminder of this dynamic. I tend to try to carry the weight of the world and that of the people around me on my shoulders at the best of times. Doing so during a global pandemic when everyone is having a hard time adjusting and finding a workable balance is insane and unsustainable. After having tried to think and find solutions for relatively minor problems for more than 400 people for a few days I realized I had to focus on the big picture, or I was going to hurt myself not by getting infected with corona, but by worrying about everyone’s sorrows.

I’m happy to say that after two weeks I’ve found a much better balance. Changing this dynamic was made easier by the whole world changing every few days at the same time. Patterns were being broken everywhere, so this was just one more thing that changed.
Changing the dynamics that have been built for many years in a relationship is a lot harder. Although even those might be easier to change right now while we are all scrambling to find a balance inside our homes and coming to grips with an outside world that feels alien and has changed completely in the last couple of weeks.
The world might never be the same. Can you say the same about how emotional labor in your relationships is divided?

Emotional Labor

A snippet of the cover of the book Mindset, by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. Showing the title, the author's name and the subtitle "Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential".

Mindset

I started reading Mindset by Carol Dweck fully convinced that I had a growth mindset. She shattered my conviction in the first few pages of the book. There indeed things for which I feel that putting in the effort will allow both myself and others to get better. It turns out that there are also many things for which I have a fixed mindset and In those areas, I believe that I lack an innate talent required to ever be any good at it.

An example of something I have (Had? Not yet, but I’m working on it.) a fixed mindset about is being able to play music. I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar in my teens and I was never any good at it. I had lessons and practiced, but never with a solid expectation that I would get good. I was always insecure because I saw others who were much better. I was a lighting engineer at the time and compared myself to the people I saw play on the stage. I stopped playing after a couple of years and didn’t touch another instrument until I was tempted into trying to learn to play the piano a year ago.

A fixed mindset means that you believe that your qualities and those of others are carved in stone. That you have a certain amount of talent and that you’ll have to make do with that.
With a growth mindset, you believe that you can cultivate and improve your qualities through effort, practice, and help from others. This doesn’t mean you believe that anyone can become Einstein or Van Gogh or Tim Minchin. It means that you believe that you can improve compared to your own starting point. How far you can improve depends on many factors and in some cases talent is one of them.

It turns out that your mindset has a profound impact on the way you lead your life. If you have a fixed mindset it’s hard to try something new. After all, if you fail it means you’re no good at it and might as well give up straight away. Asking for help is hard because it means admitting to failure and deficiency.
A growth mindset can develop a passion for learning. Trying something new can be seen as a challenge and failing is a chance to learn and improve. Instead of hiding deficiencies, someone with a growth mindset will focus on overcoming them.
It’s easy to see how having a different mindset can significantly change the way you live your life.

Like almost everything else, our mindsets can also be changed and developed. This can be worked on from the inside but is also influenced by external sources. The most direct way to influence someone’s mindset is through praise and criticism.
Dweck explains that praise should be given for effort, trying different strategies and asking for help when needed, not for result (or speed). If you praise a kid because it read a book or got a good mark in school by telling it how smart it is you are suggesting that it’s an innate quality that allowed it to succeed. The kid might feel there’s no need to learn anymore because it’s already smart. If next time the mark ends up being much lower it might feel like a failure.

Be aware that it’s damaging to praise a kid for effort when the kid didn’t actually try hard or ask for help. If a kid fails because it didn’t put in enough effort it should be told so. In a kind and empathic way. A lazy, confused or insecure kid isn’t going to suddenly be motivated when it’s being belittled or threatened.
I’m using kids as an example because it’s easier to associate ideas and behavior around praise and learning with them, but it works exactly the same for us as adults.

In an experiment, two groups of people were being given a puzzle to resolve. One of the groups was given fixed mindset praise when completing it, the other group was being praised for the effort that they put in and the strategy that they used. When asked if they liked the next puzzle to be more difficult or similar to the first one, the group given fixed mindset praise overwhelmingly chose one that was similar to the first puzzle. Resolving the puzzle means you’re smart and failing to resolve a more difficult one might expose you as the fraud that you are.
The group that was praised for their effort was interested in the challenge of a more difficult puzzle.
This effect is visible regardless of the type of mindset that people had before the experiment started.

The impact of fixed mindset feedback is similar. When missing a shot while playing tennis you can get annoyed and tell yourself that you’re hopeless, or you can challenge yourself to stay loose on your feet and try and hit the next one better.
We don’t even need others to talk us out of a growth mindset and into a fixed one. Most of us are perfectly capable of doing it to ourselves. Having others confirm our fixed mindset will make it much harder to find a way out towards a growth mindset though.
If you want to get better at something try to find the motivation to put in time and effort and ask for help. Being brave enough to do this means we can grow in almost every area of our lives.

Carol Dweck is very open about coming to the insights she describes in Mindset through her research. She repeatedly talks about how she struggles to stay in a growth mindset herself in different areas of her life, despite having witnessed the evidence of the benefits first-hand. This is both a refreshing position for an author to take in their own book and it’s reassuring that even someone who wrote a book on the subject is still struggling to put the ideas into practice.
I feel that anyone can learn from this book. When read with an open mind it’s a strong dose of motivation and inspiration. Use it to your advantage.

I was inspired by this book. I have to admit that I feel inspired by many books and I’m not going to apologize for it. Reading books is a great way to grow and learn for me. While I struggle to get out of my fixed mindset when it comes to making music and art, I do have a growth mindset when it comes to improving my behavior and increasing my intellect.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I’m going to practice my piano playing!

An images showing two heads in profile. A blue one on the left has Growth Mindset and characteristics of it written in it. A grey one on the right has Fixed Mindset and some of its characteristics written in it.