Saying f**k it to goals

My goal, ahem, for what’s left of 2016 is to try and put up all my publications online.

This article for Together magazine focused on goals. Is it good to set goals? Yes, they give you direction, a target, and a sense of achievement once you’ve reached them. On the other hand, no it’s not good, as you can become goal crazy, putting your health, self or others at risk just to achieve them.

Sometimes, it’s really nice not to have a goal. It’s great to just drift along and see where life takes you. You may be pleasantly surprised. I’m quite partial to the “go with the flow” attitude, but once and a while, I check in with myself and stay conscious of where I’m going. When it no longer feels like the right direction, I pull over and get my map out (or ask someone)!

So I hope you enjoy the article.

Finally, you may have noticed that the citizens of the US did something quite spectacular on Tuesday. There’s been a lot of fear mongering since and it’s true, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. But just with Brexit, maybe the best thing is to focus on today, rather than on what might be, and on what is beyond our control. Let’s do what we can: protest peacefully, hold our politicians to account and be part of the citizenry.

P.S I’m with Dilbert.

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All about intuition

Every decision that has profited me has come from me listening to that inner voice first. And every time I’ve gotten into a situation where I was in trouble, it’s because I didn’t listen to it. I overrode that voice, that instinct, with my own head and with my own thinking.”

– Oprah Winfrey

I am a big fan of Oprah. I watched an interview that she did at Standford University and I was just so impressed with how in touch she is with her intuition. She’s not the only successful person to do so. My relationship guru, Matthey Hussey, does the same. He admits that every mistake that he’s made is because he did not follow his own advice.

Intuition, trusting our instincts has always intrigued me. For this article in Together magazine, I try to understand what it means to follow our instincts, and also what they actually are in the first place.

Enjoy!

Going with your gut: Gemma Rose attempts to subject intuition to rational analysis

Every decision that has profited me has come from me listening to that inner voice first. And every time I’ve gotten into a situation where I was in trouble, it’s because I didn’t listen to it. I overrode that voice, that instinct, with my own head and with my own thinking,” counselled Oprah Winfrey in the recent interview ‘Oprah Winfrey on Career, Life and Leadership’.

I have always been fascinated by this counsel embedded within us. Sometimes it’s a voice; other times it can be a sensation or a feeling. It can even be physical pain or discomfort. It prods us, awakes us. It tells us that it’s time for a change; or that something isn’t right; or it is. There are many attempts to label it: intuition, instincts, gut feelings, the subconscious, a hunch, the inner voice. I’m not sure one term ever sufficiently describes this thing that voices its opinion ever so delicately one moment, and then blasts a code red alert the next.

Intuition is defined by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer (who’s considered an expert on the study of intuition) as this: “I use the terms gut feeling, intuition, or hunch interchangeably, to refer to a judgment that appears quickly in consciousness, whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and is strong enough to act upon.

‘Go with your gut’ is common self-help advice, and it appears to hold the key to our search for the good life. But how do we know what our intuition is? How can we tell the difference between it and the other voices in our head or sensations in our body? Can we really trust it? I cannot do this topic full justice, but my gut is telling me to write it all the same.

According to Gerd Gigerenzer in his TedX Talk, trusting our gut appears to be useful in a world of uncertainty. It is not so clear what or where this world is, but I can imagine it’s this messy, jumbled-up and confused world we live in. Freud believed that intuition was best reserved for vital or complex matters such as choice of a profession or a mate, whereas a pros and cons list suited the more simple problems. Gigerenzer also argues that more information, more time and more computation are less conducive to good decision-making. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink certainly agrees. He says that too much information over-saturates our brains so that it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees, hence hampering our good judgment.

Our intuition can also get it wrong. The fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999 – shot at 41 times – by NY police who instinctively thought he was a criminal and that his wallet was a gun is a tragic example. Research from Yale University last year showed that unstructured job interviews and going on a hunch when selecting a candidate is not an accurate predictor of the right person for the job. Our intuition can fail us in relationships: divorce and break-ups can signify that the one who we thought was ‘the one’ actually wasn’t. It can be argued that these decisions may not have been based on intuition, but rather on fear or conditions or beliefs that are familiar to us. How are we really to know what intuition is and what it isn’t?

Perhaps one of the ways to be attuned to our intuition is to listen to ourselves. Easier said than done, I know. Keeping a journal of our thoughts and sensations may help us to distinguish the wisdom from the paranoia. Meditation is also a good way to clean up the mind and to stay present. Sometimes, something just feels right or wrong. Pay attention to it; you don’t have to act on it just yet, especially when you feel you have insufficient information or there is no sense of urgency. Just be aware.

Plato believed that intuition must be subjected to reason. For Malcolm Gladwell, the best way to make a decision lies in the balance between conscious deliberation and instinct. Research from the careers charity 80,000 Hours states that we can trust our intuition when: the environment is sufficiently predictable to make decisions; we have enough experience from making similar decisions in similar environments; and feedback on decision making is quick and accurate, enabling us to learn from it.

Fully understanding our intuition is probably one of the greatest mysteries of life. It takes trust and courage to listen to it and to act upon it. My rule of thumb is Oprah: if she goes with her gut, then I might as well too.

Literature for life

“To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience.”

– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

In my latest article for Together magazine, I wrote about how literature can challenge us and teach us how to live. It is pasted in below or you can click on the link.

My love for reading is really something that has come later in life. During childhood and adolescence, I viewed reading more as a chore then a leisure activity (apart from loving Roald Dahl’s books). In secondary school, I remember once discussing Harry Potter with my Head Mistress during a formal lunch. I will never forget her stern look when I told her that I just didn’t get why Harry Potter was so amazing (I tried reading ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’ and I got bored and gave up just after Harry arrived at Hogwarts).

I’ve gotten used to not finishing books, whether it’s because I did not have the courage to carry on due to the sheer sadness of the story (Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’), the author’s neuroticism pervading through the book (Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’), a really annoying character (Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, and Emma for that matter), or due to boredom (sorry, Harry). I have made peace with leaving books unfinished.

Saying that, reading is one of life’s pleasures. People often say that to travel broadens the mind and expands our horizons. I don’t disagree, but reading trumps this because it enables us to take the most important journey of all, the one inward.

Enjoy the article!

 Living by the book: Gemma Rose believes that literature challenges us and teaches us how to live

I am my father’s daughter. I can spend hours in a bookshop or library. I go in with the intention of getting one book but end up coming out with three or four more. I absolutely love stumbling upon hidden gems: books with catchy titles or front cover artwork, recommended books or other works by my favourite authors. These are really magical moments. I have to admit though, I still have books that I’ve bought which I haven’t got round to reading yet (but I still like showing them off on my bookshelf), paying heed to the German philosopher Schopenhauer: “One usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

Another magical moment is when I have let a book go and it finds its way back into my life again, sometimes years later. One such book is JK Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a set of short-stories for young wizards and witches written by Beedle the Bard, a mysterious figure from 15th-century Yorkshire, England, with an exceptionally luxuriant beard. A friend of mine had lent it to me back in 2008. I had been particularly taken by the story The Fountain of Fair Fortune, a tale of three ill-fortuned witches and a luckless knight striving to bathe in the fountain to cure their ills. One witch, Amata, had been abandoned by her lover and yearned to mend her broken heart. At the time, I, too, had been struggling with heartbreak, so I found this story particularly touching. This story stayed with me for a long time, and I would often recall it when I needed consolation. A couple of years later, I found the book in a charity shop staring right back at me. It’s been with me ever since.

Last year, there was a wave of press about how reading had been scientifically proven to make you more empathetic. The journal Science published a study by New York’s New School of Social Research, which showed that, in five experiments, persons who had read excerpts of literary fiction performed better in emotional intelligence tests than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Dan Hurley, science journalist and author of Smarter: The Science of Building Brain Power, has reported that there is a symbiotic relationship between reading and emotional intelligence, fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems) and crystallised intelligence (knowledge that you build upon, such as vocabulary and information).

The importance, though, is not just what we read but how we read it. The study in Science used Chekhov, Don DeLillo and Téa Obreht as examples of literary fiction and Danielle Steel as an example of popular fiction. It is often acknowledged that popular fiction has the element of passivity in it, that perhaps the plot and the characters’ lives can be predictable. Rather, for reading to become an activity and for us to be thoroughly enriched by it, we ought to read books that challenge us, forcing us to reflect and to think for ourselves. The Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Canton recently wrote about the danger of treating literature as a consumer product, something easily attained and easily disposable without putting in the effort: “Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither.”

Stories – for me particularly, short stories – remind me that I am human: I make mistakes; I make assumptions; I accept life’s lemons with serenity one day; I fight against it the next. I experience unrequited love, abandonment and romantic regret. And, yet, I also feel the sensation of growing attachment and unconditional love. By reading stories, I am comforted that I am not alone and that I, too, am part of the imperfection that constitutes mankind.

Most recently, I made an assumption that could have cost me an important friendship. Before I let this assumption take hold of me, I brought myself back to the short story Painted Ocean, Painted Ship by Rebecca Makkai. The story focuses around a young woman who was becoming frustrated at her partner’s unwillingness to reassure her of her beauty and her worth. The woman realizes how her obstinate nature could have cost her the love of a good man: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it or kill it or at least fail to save it.”

Should we really do what we love?

For last month’s issue of Together magazine, I question whether the advice of “doing what you love” as a career is as helpful as it appears. I always thought it was and I wrote about it in a previous post. Below is an excerpt of the magazine article:

“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.” The plummy voice of Alan Watts (the English author and speaker best remembered for bringing Eastern philosophy to the West) does haunt me. This line in the video ‘What if money was no object?’ sent me into a bit of a tizzy when I first watched it a year ago. It made me call into question what I really desired from life.

Read more (p. 15-16 of Pdf version)

 

 

Know your value, know your self

Hi All,

I hope to be back posting on a regular basis. I have spent the month of March travelling and spending time with family. I managed to get another article published with Together magazine, entitled ‘Know your value, know your self’. It’s on p. 15 of the pdf link to this month’s issue. We often hear experts telling us to “know our value”, “appreciate our worth” etc., but I wonder what these phrases actually mean. I hope to shed more light on the subject in the article. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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On my 24th birthday, my Dad quoted part of the poem Nosce Teipsum (“Know Thyself”) by the Elizabethan poet (also a lawyer and politician) Sir John Davies in my birthday card. My Dad dedicated the following lines to help me in my journey throughout life:

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.

These lines inspired me to write this article. If we are ever to truly know our value, we first must know who we are.

Thank you Dad for providing such inspiration.

See you all soon,

Gemma

Comparing ourselves: an exercise in futility

“We do not deserve our place of distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part on fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

I often compared myself to others, in looks and in intelligence. I am mixed race – Malaysian and Irish – yet I’m told that I don’t look very “Asian”. I have fair skin, I go red very easily, my hair is thick and curly. The few things that give away my Asian heritage are the shape of my eyes and my black hair.

I had a friend who was like me – half Asian and half Caucasian. She was perhaps what one would expect a mixed race woman of South East Asian and European origins to look like: very delicate features – almost feline – high cheekbones, straight dark hair, a slender figure. Everyone would comment on how exotic and beautiful she was. I always felt inadequate next to her. Plus, I was chubby so I was always known as the “fat one” and she the “pretty one”.

When I was studying to become a barrister, I constantly felt stupid next to my class mates. They seemed to understand the mechanics of the law so much quicker and better than I ever could. They could articulate complicated reasoning with such simplicity; they were able to excel in exams and competitions whilst at the same time landing themselves the top jobs.

Looks and intelligence were the areas where I compared myself to others the most. And I would say that most of us do the same.

I tried affirmations in the hope of eliminating my entrenched beliefs. But as I did so, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling any better about myself. I wasn’t ‘brighter and better‘ every day. In the morning, I didn’t ‘look in the mirror and see nothing but pure beauty‘ staring back at me. I felt less attractive and more stupid.

It looks like I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman cites a study by the psychologist Joanne Wood. Wood had an inkling that people who use positive affirmations tend to be those with low-self esteem. She was also under the impression that since affirmations were at odds with what these people really felt about themselves, repeating them would make them feel worse. The study proved her inkling right: that for those people with low self-esteem, positive affirmations produced the opposite effect.

Nonetheless, I carried on regardless: making more of an effort with my appearance; studying harder for my classes. I did not necessarily feel better; I just got on with it.

The nail was finally hit on the (my) head last year, when I did an online course on political philosophy with my Dad. In one particular lecture we learnt about the American philosopher John Rawls’ theory on moral desert and justice. He asserted that we cannot claim credit for our talents, it just so happens to be our good luck that we were born in good circumstances and that society at that moment places a high value on them. As he states, “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place in society.”

What John Rawls had said was liberating. The way that I am – my talents, how I look – are not my doing and whether they are prized or not are dependent on how society tends to value them at any given moment. This is the same for people who I thought were better looking or smarter than me: they were born that way, through no fault or doing of their own, and society just happened to appreciate more their attributes.

It was from this point that I could finally and fully accept my flaws and deficiencies for what they are. I stopped comparing myself to others because it appears to me that life is just one big lottery. I cannot change what I perceive to be are my limitations. Instead I can focus on how to maximise the attributes that I believe I have.

John Rawls believes that we should allow our talents to flourish. Yet, he powerfully asserts that justice and the good life lie not in whether we deserve the rewards for our talents, but rather in how we use them to help those less fortunate than us. The American philosopher Michael J. Sandel sums up perfectly in his book ‘Justice‘ the truth upon which Rawls’ theory of justice relies: “The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be.”

Let’s not forget it.

Your love keeps lifting me higher

“When I sing, I am taken out of the mundane world into another place – and it is always a pleasure to return to that place.”

– Michael Bourke (from a case-study in ‘Flourishing’ by Maureen Gaffney)

One of my absolute favourite things to do is sing: I sing when I cook; I sing in the shower; I sing in front of my computer screen at work. I love it.

I was an active singer at school, being part of the school choir and occasionally singing my own songs for music class. If I felt inadequate in other areas of my life or even in music (I always felt a bit rubbish at playing the piano, for example), I knew that I could sing.

During most of my twenties, I did far less singing. I never properly found an outside opportunity to sing. I thought that choral choirs were too stuffy, serious and much better suited to an older generation. What I wanted was a choir that did traditional and modern pieces. I wanted a full range (or near enough to it).

But it wasn’t solely that I found it hard to find a suitable, easy-to-get-to choir in London, I also felt like I could not spend the time being part of one. My working hours were split between work and studying, my free time was spent commuting or preparing for classes. As I have written previously on this blog, London living was hard, and I did not have enough energy to expend it on something I really loved doing.

What a mistake that was! What I have learnt about passion is that I should never forgo, suppress or give up on what gives me great joy in life. I believe that part of the reason why I felt so unhappy at times living in London was because I wasn’t in a choir. And science has shown that singing in a choir is one possible secret to happiness. The author Stacy Horn does a brilliant job of describing the wonderful effects and release singing in a choir has on your brain, body and well-being. She says that it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing well as long as you can carry a tune, which according to the BAFTA and Emmy award winning choirmaster Gareth Malone, anyone can.

Since moving to Brussels, my return to choir-dom has been gradual, first in a choral group at work to now in a choir at one of the music schools in the heart of Brussels. My choir is a mix of students and non-students, young and old(er), Belgian and other nationalities. We sing a range of music, from Bach to the Beatles. Our choir director is charismatic, vivacious, motivational and not to mention funny. The rehearsals are filled with laughter and energy. It is my dream choir.

When I sing in the choir, I experience flow. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of deep engagement in an activity, in other words, losing yourself in what you are doing. The psychologist Maureen Gaffney describes in her book ‘Flourishing’ that when someone is in flow, their mind is “completely and effortlessly focused on the next move. The experience is poised at the sweet spot between conscious (but not effortful) concentration and being on automatic”.

“Singing reflects the innermost of your soul,” my Dad said to me most recently. In fact, his words provided me with inspiration for this week’s post. Gareth Malone says that the choir is an expression of something that is deeply personal and that is deeply human. When I sing, I often reach a state of ecstasy: my mind is empty; I am wholly and completely lost in the moment; my sense of time has altered. I feel like my true self has come out to shine. In the choir, I sense that I am part of something bigger than myself. We breathe together, we work together, we play together, our hearts may even beat in synchrony. It is said that singing in a choir is likened to a spiritual experience. Amen to that.

I may have convinced you to join a choir. But even if singing is not for you, here is my hope for you: that whatever interest, hobby or work that reflects the innermost of your soul; that lifts you higher and higher (as the song goes) – you keep doing it.*

*Lawfully and the “highs” are natural, of course.