Calming the Chaos: Mindfulness in the Modern Whirlwind

Too many of us can get sucked into the chaotic pace of modern life, constantly racing to simply survive the day, living for the weekend, counting days, weeks, months to vacation or pockets of solace, a ‘break’ from our lives. We are conditioned to always look forward, to chase – qualifications, promotions, social and professional status upgrades, car, partner, marriage, house, children, better house, better car, better status – it never ends.

Until it does.

And therein lies the problem; our societal values are misguided. We need to educate ourselves and the generations to come on the value and importance of self-care, mindfulness and the capacity to acknowledge, appreciate and enjoy the process, the journey, the experience. Life must be lived in the present if we are to create a life of value and fulfilment. A life lived in the future brings only hollowness, and much as a car cannot run on fumes, nor can we humans run on empty. Failure to engage with our lives in a meaningful way, to truly participate in our daily routines rather than merely complete the day, encourages a mindset focused only on surviving, never allowing us the space to thrive and flourish.

Try to infuse the hectic flurry of your day with a little calm and peace. Here are some simple tips for calming your mind and establishing balance and mindful participation in your day:

 

  1. Take the time in the morning to start your day with a breathing exercise to centre your mind and fortify your mind and body for the tasks ahead.
  2. Wake up a few minutes earlier and have your coffee sitting at your table, reading a few pages of a book or simply meditating, rather than grabbing a coffee amidst the chaos of your commute.
  3. Implement a ‘technology curfew’ an hour before bed to free your mind of the associations of the day, and to give your body time to switch off and decompress to encourage more rested sleep to recover from the day.
  4. Practise gratitude by writing down or saying out loud each morning one thing you are looking forward to that day, and at night before you go to bed, do the same but this time something you were grateful for that happened during the day.

 

Simple changes can have a big impact, and provide a solid, manageable foundation for greater changes in the long run.

 

Life is more than a checklist.  

Decision-Making: Rational or Emotional?

Are you stuck in a rut, miserable in your job, unhappy with your weight/health/fitness levels, stressed out and fed up?

Are you making any changes to improve your situation?

Or are you trapped in the prison of inaction?

So many of us settle, ‘put up and shut up’ – or worse – continue to lament, whine and labour about how miserable we are, without ever taking any strategic action to change our situation.

There are several factors that influence our decision-making processes and the follow on from those decisions, namely our willingness and likelihood of effectuating the necessary changes to realise our goal and see those decisions through to fruition.

Status quo bias is a cognitive bias which deals with our preference for the familiar and a resistance to change. This bias can play a role in decision inertia (failure to make objective decisions based on the information at hand in favour of repeating old decision patterns, in other words staying the same rather than making an active informed choice) and is one of the underlying influences in our decision-making (or indecision) behaviours which can lead to stagnation, failure to capitalise on opportunities, and at times negative consequences, due to our aversion to change.

Research shows that people feel greater regret for unfavourable outcomes resultant of change than for consequences resulting from inaction and that “losses loom greater than gains” (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979,1982). Loss aversion is one of the primary tenets underpinning Prospect Theory.

Sunk Cost Fallacy builds on these theories and describes how our rationality in respect of decision making is interfered with by the emotional values we ascribe to the factual data. Put simply, we find it difficult to separate the knowledge of our investment (time, money, efforts) into something from the objective realities of its benefit yield. This may explain why you may find it difficult to move on from an organisation for which you have spent a significant portion of your working life, even if it makes you miserable. Why we don’t cancel that weekend break even though we are sick, because rather than taking the rational decision of writing off the deposit to reschedule for a time when we can maximise our benefit from the holiday, we proceed with the additional costs for a trip that we are not healthy enough to enjoy. Why we continue to eat beyond the point of enjoyment, often to a point of discomfort, when we order too much, rather than ‘waste’ food for which we have already paid.

Fear of change is great and caution of the unknown indeed serves a purpose in protecting our security and ability to meet with our obligations. However, when caution extends beyond rational consideration and our emotional responses begin to interfere with our ability to logically assess our situation, we wind up in a place of fraught inhibition. Over-cautiousness and hyper-sensitivity to our emotional impulses of fear, aversion and doubt can have a devastating impact on our ability to progress and to flourish. Failure to identify the difference between reasonable risk and carelessness can sensor our capacity to listen to our gut, to afford ourselves the opportunity to succeed, to develop and to learn, and all too often can cost us our happiness.

It is important to build the tools to gain confidence in our ability to decipher appropriate risk, and to have faith in our abilities to succeed. We are often much better at identifying our shortcomings and knowledge gaps than at emphasising our strengths and capacity for development and learning. If you have been feeling stuck or lost in your current situation, it is time to shift your focus and energy to clearly defining your goal and identifying the necessary changes that you must make in order to reach that goal. Dreams are destined to remain so if we do not take the tangible steps to translate those ideals into a goals, and to catalyse that transformation, you must have a plan; clear visualisation of where you want to be, the necessary requirements to effectuate that reality, identifying the skills and resources at your disposal and the steps you must take to bridge the gaps along the way. Not taking action is a decision to remain unfulfilled. Decide one way or the other – either own your decision to remain as you are, and take steps to improve your situation within its current confines, or make the decision to change your situation and commit to action. The worst thing we can possibly do in this life is to waste our opportunities by allowing life to happen to us. Take back the reins and assume ownership of your own direction.

Conservative analysis takes us only so far, and then comes confidence and self-belief. After all, as Erin Hanson so adroitly encapsulates the sentiment;

 

“What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”

What would you do if the world was ending?

‘What are you doing today?’

‘If the world was ending, and you had just this last day on earth, what would you do?’

How many of us, I wonder, could truthfully answer these two questions with the same response? My guess is not many, if any.

With the exception of those with a hidden penchant for apocalyptic anarchy à la The Purge, this begs further inquiry. (We will leave this subcategory undisturbed, or rather, disturbed without interruption, as I believe the treatment of those issues, in my capacity as a personal and business development psychologist, lie just beyond the scope of my reach!). Because, without trying to get too philosophical on this, technically, every day the world is ending. Ending for someone, ending for several someones. Ending in the definitive, finite sense of concept, and ending in the shades of grey between, when catastrophic and subtle shifts alike change everything, and the world as you’ve always known it transforms utterly and completely in a moment, and that old world ceases to exist, making you question if it ever did.

And so this brings me to the reasons behind this disconnect. Why, when life is so uncertain, so unstable and so incredibly volatile, do we continue to lead our lives in such a way that we prioritise the mundane, the prosaic and the routine? Why do the overwhelming majority consistently supress our true desires, neglect our most organic pleasures and pursue the path most travelled by?

Fear.

It appears that somewhere along the way, a detrimental group delusion has been established and continues to be perpetuated generation after generation. For many, subscription to the status quo takes root in the religious and cultural conditioning to which many have been and continue to be exposed. Particularly in Ireland, where state and religion continue to be dubiously synonymous, we have all borne witness to the hard sell of ‘moral’ values and obligations. The reach and extent of religious and political subjugation in this country is an animal entirely its own, a topic relevant to this article yet potentially divergent in its complexity, thus I will not delve into a detailed dissection of this meaty little controversy catalyst at this time. Suffice it to say, we are all aware of the pervasive and innumerous framework of rules and judgments imposed by religious teachings and sympathetic political policies. We are taught from an early age to adhere to the guidelines with stoicism and without questioning. We must fall in line, keep our heads down and, ultimately ‘play it safe’; be ‘good’ citizens, ‘good’ people. Ignoring the obvious rampant hypocrisy, I have to wonder about the manifestation of these early and continuous teachings, about how they shape our world perspective and our personal aspirations, beliefs and behaviour in the long term. Similarly, and perhaps (likely), not unrelatedly we as a society appear to uphold and perpetuate restrictively narrow views on which lifestyles, behaviours and choices constitute acceptable, correct and ‘good’ decisions. This mindset applies to varying degrees on a spectrum of matters ranging from the profound (e.g. human rights and respect for the entitlements of others) to the seemingly insignificant, yet often impactful, represented in the judgmental remarks, snide comments and character assassination that occurs on a regular basis, with the collective power to deter and demoralise the recipients and/or the subjects of such commentary. How many times, I wonder, have we each let opportunity pass us by, denied our hearts and our guts, for fear of upsetting the expectations of societal norms, and/or incurring the wrath of the inevitable ridicule, disparaging monologues and the risk of ‘failure’? I would venture a guess of countless.

We are all aware that nothing in this life is guaranteed, especially the continuation of our individual existence. Yet, the acuteness of this awareness appears to have been collectively dulled. We place higher priority on the fleeting opinions of others than the observance of our own mortality. This, to me, is a bizarre reality with which I struggle to come to terms. It is fascinating to me that we, myself included, continue to choose preoccupation with the insignificant over the profound. We submit to being gorgonised by the banal; job stability, status anxiety, aesthetic presentation; yet we resist the opportunity to be galvanised by the constant potential imminence of our mortality. We have become so afraid of making mistakes that we refuse to take liberating action. So averse are we to the ‘risks’ of instability and change within the confines of our attenuated world view that we are failing on a significant scale to take advantage of our exiguous stint here on the continuum of existence.

In the end, whenever and however that end may come, none of this will matter. Not even the extent to which we exploited or squandered our individual time, opportunities and existence. We will cease to be, and in time, so will our legacy as those who hold our memory also fade. All that matters is right now, today. With grace and luck, there may be a tomorrow, but even so, there is no guarantee that tomorrow’s world will resemble that which we know today. It is wise to observe certain practices for the assurance of our future – investing our time and our other resources well for the benefit of our future life trajectory. I am not suggesting that we all throw hazard to the wind and spontaneously combust in a blaze of irresponsible impulsivity, quite the contrary, rather. I simply hope that this journalistic soliloquy may ground your fears, and in some small way, encourage you to take a step back to take the perspective of the big picture – however briefly – and feel inspired to extinguish that fear of rejection, of ridicule; to ignore the rules of acceptableness and ‘good’ sense, and to set the wheels in motion to take that chance that has been burning in the embers of your heart for as long as you can remember, and fan it into a conflagration that consumes your doubts.

 

The Purpose of Life and the Quest for Success.

‘Life is too short; It’s all or nothing; Go hard or go home; Stay positive; Be Happy

How often do we read echoes of these sentiments in the multitude of mindfulness centred, self-improvement driven and life coach guidance posts, tweets, books and ethereal InstagramXTumblr posts of wide-eyed idealists, soul searchers and happiness hunters?

A self-classified hybrid of equal parts staunch pragmatist and boundless optimist, the contradictory poles of my emotional and psychological proclivities make for interesting meanders across the nexus of the mindset spectrum. Some days I am 110% motivation, hustle and drive; my focus is laser precise and my vision is HD. Other days, I find myself staring out the window, watching the morning scurry of the worker bees, the suit and ties, the uniforms and the everything-in-betweens, and I find myself high-tailing down the contemplative rabbit hole, considering the purpose of it all, or if there even is one. We are constantly bombarded with directives to ‘be’; happy, positive, successful, humanitarian, (the list goes on) – however, has the omnipotent call to action for us to find our ‘purpose’ and act on it (‘NOW’, nonetheless) driven us to a flurry of misguided activity that lacks engagement and understanding of what motivates us, and what sustains us?

Yesterday I listened to a podcast hosted by a scientist debating the potential implications of the developments in Artificial Intelligence for the masses, from the dystopian to the utopian. For a segment of the discussion, the speaker contemplated the potential benefits to humankind whereby the application of AI to serve our logistical and functional societal needs could give rise to a world of abundance; where ‘work’ is no longer necessary, yet so too does income become irrelevant as the community needs are met by the servitude of our AI counterparts. In this utopian outlook, humans become free to explore and enjoy other pleasures such as spending time with friends and family, travel, reading, sport, etc. Considering the possibilities of this proposed New World Order, I found myself wondering about how humankind would cope in the long term with an abundance of time with which to indulge ourselves, free from the material obligations imposed upon us in our current standing. So many of us feel that our careers, our life’s work, are synonymous with our lifetime goals and major achievements; for many, our professional path provides more than a revenue stream, it becomes a definitive extension of our personality, our identity and our purpose. If this concept and ritual were to be removed, would the paradigm of purpose shift to full time hedonism? Or is the pleasure that we experience when engaging in our preferred leisure pursuits and interests proportionate to the limited availability and opportunity to experience them; does the anticipation and delayed gratification govern the ultimate extent of perceived pleasure?

Have you ever taken an extended break from work or a long holiday, and after the initial novelty of relaxation, exploration and disconnection has worn off, began to look forward to returning to your daily grind and routine? Conversely, we look forward to holidays with much more vigour and anticipation when the time elapsed since our last vacation or downtime has been considerably longer, whereas vacations placed closer together illicit a more blasé lead time. Similarly, for those members of the upper echelons of society who currently or previously enjoy the benefits of a relatively serviced lifestyle, is part of the pleasure not derived from the distinction of hierarchy? The mere fact that they get to experience something that others cannot contributing to the overall experience?  If so, and if we were to find ourselves in this fully-serviced, utopian land of boundless abundance, how quickly do you think eternal leisure and instant gratification would lose its shine? If wars were ended, hunger sated and inequalities eradicated, would we continue our quest for a greater ‘purpose’? Would the result be satisfaction or saturation, and what would be the implications on our psyche as a whole?

In my swirling cloud of contemplation, I was struck by the simple and profound thought that purpose is that such as reality; absolute in its subjection and as mythical, tangible and transformative to the extent to which we appropriate. Perhaps, then, there is no ‘purpose’ to the universe, other than that which we give to it – we are all walking, breathing illusionists, giving rise to ‘realities’ through our internal processes and external reactions, based on the dynamic feedback loop of our emotional, psychological and physical interactions with the world around us. We have all heard the term ‘perception is reality’ regarding the manner in which we each process the same informational input differently, according to a myriad of unique influences and biases formed through personal experience, psychological, biological and emotional differences. These differences mould and filter the input so that the implications and analysis of the input registers uniquely for each of us, and these variations in interpretation can be subtle or significant.

So. How can this web of philosophical procrastination be harnessed as a utility for improving the way in which we live our lives, the actions we take to give our lives meaning and our pursuit of that meaning so as to create a positive, progressive and fulfilling landscape for our life trajectories? This is where that old chestnut of ‘balance’ comes into play. It seems that as we progress through the ages, the focus increasingly shifts towards an emphasis on more. Better, faster, longer, skinnier, richer, more passport stamps, more clothes, more promotions, more degrees, more relaxation, more meditation, more, more, more. Yet, we are in such a blinkered race to more, that we are eclipsing the perilously underrated profundity of enough; and more importantly, of balance. Specialisation and clarity are important, however diversity and expansion are crucial. In all areas of life, it is a condemning shortfall to restrict your participation and energies to one element, and to syphon your resources to the exclusion of concomitantly diverse balancing experiences, relationships and education. In your quest to pursue your ‘purpose’, I urge you to consider the rich tapestry of life that lies available to us all. Narrowing your focus so that you obscure your peripheral vision could result in missed opportunities far greater than the target in your scope. It is important to remain open, present and inquisitive, and to nurture and develop a dynamic and adaptable approach to all elements of life, for you never know from whence the next life changing spark will enkindle. But most importantly, in the insatiable quest for success, purpose and contribution, try to make some purchase on the here and now, and, once in a while, to allow yourself to just simply ‘be’, full stop.

 

Are Leaders Born or Made?

In an age where effective, ethical and estimable leadership is essential, yet exceedingly elusive, the controversial deliberation of how great leaders come to be is more poignant than ever.

In a report by the Centre of Creative Leadership, it is determined that the way we think about leadership affects how we perceive leaders, and that the beliefs we hold about how people become leaders affects our evaluation of leadership potential in others. A World Leadership Survey of 361 people at the top level of their respective organisations found that 52.4% of those surveyed believed that leaders are made, with only 19.1% believing that leaders are born and 28.5% of the opinion that leaders are equally born and made. Those who believe that leaders are made tend to place more emphasis on experience, whereas those who believe that leaders are born place more emphasis on the traits of an individual. Both schools of thought share the position that leaders should be participative, team oriented, charismatic and humane oriented. It is interesting to consider that the majority of high performing individuals subscribe to the belief that leaders are made. This may be a reflection of the growth mindset which contributes to progression and professional success, prevalent among individuals at top organisational level.

But what does the research say?

Research in genetics has revealed insightful and compelling findings in relation to this discussion. A paper published by De Neve refers to the identification of Genotype rs4950 which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations. The paper concludes that leadership is predominately based on developing skills, but that genetics are a factor, and that it is the interaction of the gene with environmental factors which affects the emergence of leadership qualities. In a previous study, De Neve discusses the genetic link for happiness, explaining that a variation of the 5-HTT gene could account for variance in satisfaction with life. This is relevant in that studies have found a correlation between positive emotion and success in the workplace, with individuals experiencing positive affect more likely to engage in favourable commercial and prosocial behaviours, demonstrate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm and to show strong collaborative instincts and perform well in negotiations.

Traits are described as ‘relatively stable characteristics that cause individuals to behave in certain ways’ (Van der Vleuten). Trait theories and the supposition that leaders are born purport that certain traits better suited to leadership. However, theories such as Eysenck’s PEN model or Costa and McCrae’s Five Factor ‘OCEAN’ model fail to address how or why individual differences in personality develop and emerge, and the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behaviour. Zaccaro’s Trait Model ascertains that effective leadership is derived from an integrated set of cognitive abilities, social capabilities, and dispositional tendencies; the effect of environmental and personal characteristics. Zaccaro posits that leadership emerges from a combined influence of multiple traits, rather than derived from various independent traits. The multistage model asserts the role of distal attributes (e.g. cognitive abilities, motives/values) and their influence on the development of proximal attributes (expertise, knowledge, skills) which directly influence leadership qualities and emergence. The model proposes that certain leadership traits are predictors of a successful leader, such as intelligence, creativity, achievement motivation, need for power, oral/written communication and interpersonal skills, among others.

In answer to the dissatisfaction with trait theories, Cognitive Resource Theory (CRT) was developed by Fred Fiedler, refined with the assistance of Joseph Garcia. The theory presents a dynamic perspective on leadership, differing by scenario, finding that intelligence is the main factor in low-stress situations, whereas experience is the main resource employed in high-stress situations. The theory presents four predictions: A leader’s cognitive ability contributes to the performance of the team only when the leader’s approach is directive, stress affects the relationship between intelligence and decision quality, experience is positively related to decision quality under high stress and, for simple tasks, leader intelligence and experience is irrelevant. Research has demonstrated that the ability to apply reason and logic can drop up to 75% with even the slightest provocation, and the neocortex, which is responsible for cognitive ability, can take up to 20 minutes to recover from an emotional encounter. If such feelings are frequently triggered, this results in a significant amount of time where logic and technical skills are incapacitated.

As organisations and individuals are becoming more self-aware in terms of addressing the more complex psychological elements of success, progression and leadership, we are beginning to see a shift from the more traditional emphasis on IQ towards a more prevalent acknowledgment of the value and importance of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Daniel Goleman describes how emotional intelligence represented approximately 80-90% of distinguishing competencies found in the top leaders at a global manufacturing company. Goleman identifies two types of emotional competence, personal and social, and further deconstructs emotional competence into subcategories of self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and social skills or handling of relationships. Goleman elucidates on the two dimensions of personal competence; the competencies that determine how we manage ourselves, and those which determine how we manage relationships. It is accepted that there is a requisite for above average intelligence to master technical knowledge to pursue revered professions such as a lawyer, doctor, business executive, etc., however once the individual meets this barrier to entry, achieves the necessary qualifications and enters the workforce, their IQ and technical skills are usually more or less equal to those of their peers, and so EI becomes the differentiator. Therefore, in order to progress, building relationships becomes more important than technical skills.

Studies have proven the importance of EI skills in the workforce, with research conducted with Sanofi France, where focus was concentrated on the EI skills of salesforce resulted in a 12% annual boost in performance. Another example is that of Motorola investing in EI training for their manufacturing staff, which resulted in an increase in productivity of more than 90% of those trained. Leaders with well-adjusted emotional intelligence skills are predisposed to successfully manage emotions which allows them to handle the stress of the job, the frustrations, disappointments and joys in a more measured and effective manner. Moshe Zeidner describes several processes whereby EI positively influences work performance, including better communication of ideas, intentions and goals, team-work and social skills, and possessing effective and efficient coping skills.

Ronald Riggio subscribes to the belief that many aspects combine to develop a leader into a strong leader, such as professional development, self-awareness and introspection. In this way, Riggio recommends that the best approach for organisations to adopt is to grow their own effective leader through leadership development, rather than searching for the ‘perfect leader’ elsewhere. It is interesting to consider the spectrum of research in this area, with particular relevance for organisations determining and identifying those protégés in whom to invest for professional development and leadership grooming. There are mixed reports in this area, with some findings that there is a distinction between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness, meaning that some traits may predict the emergence of leadership in social situations but in practise have little influence on the effectiveness in a formal leadership role, with other reports supporting that the same pattern of individual differences is associated with both leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. These opposing findings are noteworthy as the process for selecting and mentoring the right employees for leadership positions is crucial to the ongoing vitality and progression of an organisation under effective successive leadership and management.

Much with the general conversation around cognitive versus non-cognitive skills and the most conducive focus areas of development for personal and professional success and achievement, it appears that the debate around leadership and whether leaders are born or made is not an either/or reality at all, but rather a complex combination of the two elements. Research appears to suggest that there are certain biological elements that establish a predisposition for the emergence of leadership qualities and aspirations, yet the social and environmental factors determine whether these biological traits flourish and emerge as effective leadership skills. The ongoing development of an individual, coupled with individual differences and a variety of biosocial factors inspire the belief that perhaps we should approach the matter with a more integrative perspective; perhaps leaders are Born then Made.

“If you’re not stressed, you’re LAZY.”

‘I’m so stressed’

How often have you heard this phrase lately? Be it the weary iterations of colleagues, the exasperated utterances of companions or the heavy despair of your own internal monologue – it seems that everyone around us is shouldering the burden of immense pressure, responsibilities and obligations.

In a world where deadlines loom menacingly, the demands on our time continue to compound and constrict our bandwidth and the pressure to attain success and status in a ubiquitous way create more strain than ever before, research is showing that for the first time in decades, adults over the age of 30 are becoming less happy than the generations before them. In a time where opportunity is rife, where the world is our oyster; we are educated, we have all the advantages of technology and scientific advancement, we are in the age of information and unlimited scope for achievement, why is it that we appear to be psychologically unfulfilled? With mental health issues such as anxiety and depression on the rise, it is time to seriously appraise our attitudes to our mental and psychological well-being, and the actions we are taking that are contributing to their protection or decline.

We have created a culture in which we enforce and perpetuate the idea that if you are not ‘stressed’, you are lazy. We have equated ‘stress’ and busyness with a good work ethic and ambition. This is a grievous flaw. The average person is juggling so many balls that they are ultimately going to lose their footing – and it is only after the fact, when it all comes crashing down around us, around our loved ones and friends, that maybe we take the time to re-evaluate our priorities and the (lack of) balance in our lives. Or we hop straight back on the merry-go-round at break neck speed to make up for the time we have lost; until each fracture reduces us to an increasingly brittle, hollow structure, diminishing our resilience and our capacity for joy until it consumes us. Because this is what is happening. This is what we are allowing to happen.

But this does not have to be the case.

The wonderful thing about ‘stress’ is that it is in fact neutral. Stress results from an individual’s perception and reaction to stimuli known as stressors, stimuli that challenge the body’s homeostasis and trigger arousal. The reaction of the body’s attempt to mitigate the stress will depend on our interpretation of the event or stimulus. Distress is the term given to negative stress, which results in a number of negative physiological and biological reactions, such as fatigue and illness. Alternatively, certain stress responses result in increased performance and act as a trigger for motivation; this type of stress is referred to as eustress. The Yerkes Dodson Law, however, suggests that even the positive effect reverses after a certain point, and advises that excessive stress will result in diminished performance over time.

This is where we need to assess the delicate balance between motivation, ambition and a strong work ethic, and burnout, disillusionment and fatigue. Setting high standards for ourselves and our staff is a positive way of driving our development and our progression. Hard work and continuous development and efficacy is vital to personal improvement and career progression. It is striking the balance between challenging ourselves and our staff, and pushing our limits and identifying when we are pushing ourselves to breaking point that is key to sustainable success and fulfilment in the long term.

Setting goals and taking measurable, deliberate action towards achieving them is fundamental to driving ourselves forward. It is imperative however that in defining our goals and our strategy for attaining them, that we also appraise our psychological and physiological needs, and incorporate these into our action plan. We must prioritise the preservation of our mental health and that of our colleagues and staff as we do productivity, innovation and commitment – because in the long run, they are in fact one and the same.

Happy individuals are more likely to engage in favourable commercial and prosocial behaviours within an employment context. They are more likely to demonstrate high levels of motivation and enthusiasm and show strong collaborative instincts and perform well in negotiations. Happiness is positively correlated with individual earnings and financial security and longitudinal evidence supports happiness as a consistent predictor for success in the workplace over time. Studies continue to show that workers who establish a good work-life balance show less burnout, less absenteeism and lower staff turnover.

In addition to the social and performance related benefits, the necessity to manage workplace and occupational stress is paramount to our psychological and physiological health and well-being. The toll that stress takes on our body and mind is tremendous, and the scope and severity of the effects are immeasurable. The consistent and prolonged production of stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol increase blood sugar level to provide energy for the adrenaline ‘fight or flight’ response and can lead to type 2 diabetes. Stress can increase heart and respiration rates, cause muscle tension and can cause erectile dysfunction in males and irregular, painful or cessation of menstruation in females. Too much cortisol as a result of stress response damages neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved in modulating the stress response. This leads to a decrease in the inhibition of cortisol secretion, resulting in more cortisol secretion under prolonged stress, causing further damage. Depression is also associated with HPA axis activation and elevated levels of cortisol and catecholamine. Studies show that depression is associated with lower T-cell and Natural Killer cell activity, which are vital to the healthy functioning of the immune system.

Therefore, the approach we take in mitigating workplace stress and the steps we take to manage it in an adaptive, effective manner are vital to our health, our well-being, and our professional performance and the capacity to achieve our goals. Employers and organisations need to create a culture where work-life balance is encouraged and enabled. Employees should feel supported and empowered to address these challenges in a proactive way, establishing an open environment in which mental health is valued, discussed and protected. Taking proactive steps such as talking it out, approaching colleagues or superiors to collaborate on an effective strategy, collaborating with a professional development coach, and incorporating techniques and healthy behaviours such as meditation, exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep are paramount to establishing a healthy work-life balance, which in turn will lead to a happier, more fulfilled life and enhance professional performance and progression.

Which cog turns the wheels of success?

There has been much noise of late surrounding the value of standardised testing in schools and the merits of cognitive vs. non-cognitive skills in general. The idea that the trajectory of your academic future, professional direction and self-schema is often so strongly linked to the experience of undertaking such tests, the results achieved and ultimately the outcome of those results is sobering. The current structure informs our options directly as it effects submission to colleges and eligibility for employment and indirectly in the beliefs we form about our abilities and competencies. It has been found that non-cognitive skills are the most important determinants of lecture attendance and independent study, which are key determinants of academic achievement, and disparities in non-cognitive skills contribute to the academic achievement gap separating wealthy from disadvantaged students. Society has developed a disturbingly limited view in terms of human value assessment and appraisal, creating a detriment of unrealised potential and missed opportunity.

As the old saying goes ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’. Focus is beginning to broaden and shift to examine a spectrum of skills, other than cognitive crystallised intelligence, and it is becoming apparent that non-cognitive skills may be just as important, if not more so, in determining success in the long term. A meta-analysis of over 200 interventions increasing social and emotional learning of children ages 5–18 resulted in overall positive association between interventions and higher academic achievement.

Studies have shown that achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success, and that these tests do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills. Yet non-cognitive or soft skills have been proven to predict meaningful life outcomes. Boosting non-cognitive skills early in life increases the benefits of education later in life and these skills are more malleable than cognitive skills at later stages, due to slow development of the prefrontal cortex.

Angela Duckworth has carried out much work in this area, and has identified that ‘grit’, a measure of perseverance and passion for long-term goals, may be as essential as IQ and more important than conscientiousness in predicting achievement. More educated adults are found to be higher in grit, and it has also been found to be positively correlated with conscientiousness, academic achievement and performance. For example, one study showed that grit predicted completion of a summer training program at the West Point military academy better than any other predictor.

David Mc Clelland emphasised the importance of motivation and incentive value for predicting achievement performance in his Human Motivation Theory. Recent research has identified that the responsiveness to incentives on IQ and achievement tests depends on a person’s non-cognitive skills, and that motivation of test takers predicts IQ scores, which some psychologists assume are good measures of intelligence. This suggests that non-cognitive skills contribute to performance on standardised tests and may be indirectly assessed in the process. Individual differences in grit account for significant incremental variance in success outcomes over and beyond that explained by IQ. However, ‘smarter’ individuals are no ‘grittier’, therefore grit is not assigned as a cognitive skill, nor an apparent bi-product of fluid intelligence. Grit and self-discipline are highly correlated but grit predicts accomplishment of very high challenges among high-achievers better than self-discipline.

The concept of a growth mindset is the acknowledgment that limiting self-beliefs can shape our reality. Whether people believe core qualities fixed or can be developed directly effects their personal development and progression. Growth mindset measures the implicit theory of intelligence; the extent to which an individual believes that their ability and performance can improve with effort, rather than being fixed by factors outside of their control. This belief informs the amount of effort a person will invest in development and improvement, and ultimately the degrees of progression and increased ability. Put simply, one’s belief in the ability to improve informs the desire and effort invested in improvement and the acquisition of new skills. The outcome results in a reinforcement of the underlying belief, as those who believe improvement is possible and whom put in the effort, will experience increased ability and this confirms their belief that development is possible. On the other hand, those who believe that their ability to progress and succeed is dictated by factors outside of their control will allocate little to no effort to improvement, which will often result in stagnation and thus their belief is also reinforced. Growth mindset interventions have proven to improve performance and people who cultivate a positive mind-set demonstrate superior performance and elicit favourable business outcomes. Engagement, motivation, choice, ownership, and a growth mindset are intimately related. Individuals with a growth mindset experience positive affect, and these individuals differ systematically in the cognitive and motivational strategies they employ, displaying higher levels of creativity and productivity.

A recent survey by the CBI found that non-cognitive skills such as team working and problem-solving are the most prominent deficiencies in graduates’ skill sets, despite 81% employers placing more emphasis on these skills than degree type and grade. The Buffer Hypothesis suggests that high self-esteem assists people in coping with stress and adversity. In a time where corporations require 110% from their employees, and the demands of life have increased exponentially, the ability to keep composure, rise to the challenge and persist in the face of pressure is invaluable. The ability to perpetuate this intrinsically, maintaining a calm internal equilibrium and honing the skills to effectively and adaptively deal with stress and pressure rather than simply the external appearance of composure, is crucial for long-term mental and physical health. Closely linked to self-esteem are self-efficacy beliefs, which are imperative to a growth mindset. Self-efficacy beliefs influence motivation, persistence and resilience and ultimately the realisation of success.

Conscientiousness and self-control provide the strongest evidence of predictive power over academic and life outcomes, even when controlling for cognitive ability and demographics.

There are strong correlations between self-control and higher academic performance, better adjustment, better relationships and interpersonal skills. Mischel’s Marshmallow Test discusses Hot and Cool systems, Cool representing the trigger of cognitive functions to enable an individual to assert delayed gratification and the Hot system as quick, reflexive responses to certain triggers. When a hot stimulus overrides the cool system, this results in impulsiveness. Susceptibility to emotional responses influence behaviour throughout life.

The prefrontal cortex (performs executive functions such as decision making) and ventral striatum (which processes desires/rewards) showed more activity in those with low self-control.

 

It is becoming more apparent that, as with the Nature vs. Nurture debate of times gone by, the overarching solution is that the matter should not be viewed as a one versus the other debate, but acknowledged that the focus should be placed on nurturing the development of both skill sets, as concomitant factors, and that traditional values of merit assignment should be revised to incorporate the vital importance of non-cognitive soft skills in development, success and academic and professional achievement.

The Power of Perception

I recently attended a discussion hosted by a therapist who works with women in abusive relationships. She described how one of the common challenges which she faces is in trying to introduce the concept of existential choice to women whose belief that they do not have a choice has restricted their perception of their power to control their circumstances, specifically to change them; for a host of reasons, individual and general, leaving their abusive partner is simply not an option for them. This limiting belief plays a large part in creating the psychological conditions that condemn the individuals in question to enduring treacherous and sometimes fatal relationships, and which hinder them from taking the necessary steps to allow them to change their circumstances.

In these instances, it is quite literally a mindset, albeit one that has been extensively manipulated and conditioned through the medium of mental and physical abuse, that anchors these individuals to a relentlessly painful situation. Upon reflection of this concept, it struck me that the idea of a mental construct limiting our potential is apparent in many areas of our lives. Although the context above is indeed a particularly grievous example, it occurs to me that so many of us continue to perpetuate life circumstances contrary to our preferential dispositions. Most notably, perhaps, in our careers. I know people who are heatedly passionate about what they do for a living, and their motivation, drive and obsession is inspiring. However, I know many more for whom the term ‘career’ is synonymous with ‘pay cheque’. Exploring this with colleagues and acquaintances, those for whom their work is merely a means to a financial end frequently lament the career they ‘could have had’ or the academic and professional choices they ‘should have’ made. The very language employed indicates defeat and resignation to a figurative ship that has long since sailed beyond the horizon of possibility and opportunity. If I proffer that they should take deliberate action to redirect their career path, such as returning to college, taking a course or undertaking a business venture of their own, the universal responses can almost always be narrowed to a few catch all cliché excuses: I’m too old/It’s too late, I can’t afford it, I don’t have time. The truth is that these reasons are analogous excuses, borne out of subscription to a limiting mindset. The belief that there is no option available other than to continue along the same path results in sympathetic behaviours which serve to reinforce and further perpetuate the belief, effectively giving rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A strategy that has proven effective in counselling women in abusive and fearful circumstances is to encourage them to embrace a new mindset, through which the possibility of choice can empower and embolden them to feel capable of making the necessary changes and to achieve conviction in their power to control the situation and incite change in their circumstances. This is achieved through helping to reframe the variables they had considered as obstacles or preclusions, and to instead view these challenges as consequences of the decision; ultimately acknowledging that whilst the variables about which they are concerned (such as financial instability, loss of residence, loss of partner, etc.) may exist, they do not result in a negation of choice, but rather represent unfortunate but necessary consequences of the decision of leaving. This transformative mindset shifts the dilemma from a perceived lack of choice, diminishing the associated feelings of hopelessness and resignation, and begins to introduce a new perspective, whereby they are faced with a difficult choice. The subtle but significant shift means that a difficult choice is introduced to a previously hopeless situation. This introduction of choice to a mindset that had been manipulated and compressed over a cycle of abuse to the point of desolation and resignation is the seed of empowerment for these women to find their inner strength and nourish the bravery they need to change their circumstances. Though the process can be arduous and requires tremendous emotional strength, support and courage, the dissipation of limiting beliefs and the introduction of the ability and possibility to change and regain control is the critical catalyst to impel the current of change.

The principles here are appropriate to motivational coaching and indeed as a strategy for inciting change in any area of our lives. Motivating ourselves to take the initial steps to make the changes must first begin with a desire to do so, and a belief that it is possible. These basic beliefs are paramount to achieving our goals and in ultimately realising professional and personal fulfilment. We must first allow ourselves to envision that change as a possibility, to empower us to act and effectuate that change. We must raise our standards of productivity, ethics, and commitment that inform and empower our belief constructs. We must reject the concept of fate as a predetermined course. Our future is not predetermined by our past, nor our present. Our paths are governed by a continuous, dynamic flux of interacting elements, informed by our choices, our beliefs, our willingness to commit, and our dedication to make the decisions and accept the consequences necessary to achieving our desired outcomes. Try altering your inner monologue and reframing your thought processes around the rationale for why you have not yet begun pursuit of your dreams. Rather than telling yourself you cannot do X because of Y, tell yourself that you could achieve X if you were willing to accept the consequences and sacrifices necessary to overcome the challenges presented by Y. Now ask yourself which outweighs the other; your desire to achieve X, or your unwillingness to assume the responsibilities and sacrifices necessary to achieve it.

I guarantee you will find it a lot more difficult to reason why you shouldn’t chase your dreams when you reclaim the power to believe in your control of the situation, and cease relinquishing that power to passivity. If these women can overcome extensive and pervasive psychological abuse to become empowered with the incredible mental strength to reclaim control of their minds, bodies and lives, to alter their previously held convictions of the indomitability of their circumstances, I am certain that actively choosing to amend your mindset will unlock limitless potential and reveal a spectrum of possibilities which you never allowed yourself to think possible. Achievement is borne of the seed of believing it possible.