January

A year from now, you’re gonna weigh more or less than what you do right now.”

– Dr Phil

For the last seven years or so, I have written in my journal on New Year’s day, or as close to it as possible. I start this ritual by reading what I wrote on the previous New Year’s day. I then take stock of what has happened over the past year and compare it to the previous year. In my journal I reflect on this process and I then make resolutions for the New Year. Except for last year; that journal entry ended up being some irrational rant about the trials and tribulations of romantic love – the subject for a future blog post.

So I actually did no stock-taking, no comparing and no resolution-listing. I began 2013 with no expectations of the coming year.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Because I made no resolutions, I had no demands or targets to meet. I put no pressure on myself to be a better person, to be more loving and charitable, to strive in my career or even to be in a relationship. I did not reminisce about happier times or ruminate about regrets, which is something I would often do in my stock-taking – comparing – listing ritual. The first of January 2013 was very much another ordinary day.

The F**k It philosophy talks about how plans and goals can be troublesome. One reason for this is that they can keep you too rigid and inflexible, and – to an extreme – chained to something which instead of bringing you satisfaction, may end up bringing you the opposite. In her book ‘Flourishing’, clinical and academic psychologist Maureen Gaffney states that a key element to living a flourishing life – that is a life that has meaning, that brings out our best selves, that makes us happy and positive – is to have three life projects, preferably one that relates to work, the other to family or friends and the remainder to a personal interest. A life project is bigger than a mere goal, it has to be something that fits with our values and emotions, and is something that we freely choose to do, rather than it being an obligation. Gaffney advises that life projects do not need to be big, noble nor public.

In order to choose a life project, Gaffney sets out the following criteria:
– It must be freely chosen;
– It must have meaning to us;
– We must believe that it is achievable;
– We must set goals in relation to it;
– We must dedicate enough time and effort to achieve these goals;
– We must have adequate resources to pursue it (like commitment and drive);
– There must be a reasonable chance that we can achieve the goals in the specified time.

Last New Year’s day, I made no goals, not to mention life projects. And what resulted was a year where I achieved many things, some of which I have spoken about on this blog. I began reading Gaffney’s book a year ago and was extremely put off by the idea of having life projects. I much preferred the F**k It philosophy, it seemed to work for me.

I returned to ‘Flourishing’ again during this Christmas. I was less daunted by the thought of having life projects, probably because I had already started some unwittingly: writing this blog is a life project for instance. Another life project was my decision to eat more healthily and lose weight, thus prompting me into learning how to cook well.

To me, the F**k It philosophy and ‘Flourishing’ are not mutually exclusive. I think it’s important to leave space to be flexible and open to new ideas, as ideas of life projects may not come to mind straight away and neither should they be forced. I guess however the two can be contrary to one another – having a life project is about having a sense of control whereas the F**k it philosophy is about giving up control and going with the flow.

In the end, we must work out the best way to provide meaning in our lives. And I think that if we do set ourselves goals or projects or resolutions we must do so from a healthy starting point. Giving up chocolate or signing up to the gym because of guilt or feeling bad about ourselves should never be the driving force for achieving any of the above. This is because the motivation is focussed on the negative, rather than the positive. We are doing things out of punishment, not love. And because of this, the likelihood of us accomplishing our goals, resolutions, targets or projects are small, hence making us feel worse about ourselves.

Resolutions don’t have to start this week just because it’s the New Year. They can start whenever it feels like a good idea. Or like me last year, you don’t have to have any and you can just see where each day takes you. If there are things that you would like to do or achieve towards the good life, I encourage you to go for it! But go easy on yourself, take your time, leave lots of space and listen to yourself.

I wish you a wonderful start to 2014.

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The gift to be simple

” ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…

– Traditional Shaker Tune

Christmas is the season of gift-giving. If you are anything like me, I loathe having to buy Christmas presents. It’s not the act of giving the present itself that I loathe, it’s the whole rigmarole that goes on before this final act: choosing who to give presents to; thinking long and hard (certainly for some people) about what they would like; then having to traipse round the shops with hundreds or thousands of other people doing the exact same thing; the stress of back-up ideas if the shop just doesn’t cater for your first choice present; the queuing; the spending of lots of money. That’s why I generally don’t give presents at this time of year. If I do, it’s just for immediate family and it usually comes in the form of chocolate. “If you can’t eat or drink it,” chirps my Mother, “then don’t bother.”

I accept that I’m pretty rubbish and/or lazy at giving gifts, well duty-given gifts (i.e Christmas presents) anyway. I guess everyone is different, but I prefer the gift of someone spending time with me and filling me in on their news and adventures than a tangible gift. This is not to say that I am not grateful for presents; I am, and I am touched by the thought and consideration that the person has put into choosing this gift. But since I am much better at giving my time, I prefer the gift of someone doing the same.

There have been occasions when I would give out of obligation or with the expectation of something in return. I remember once when I had showered a friend with gifts in the hope that he would sponsor me for a cause. He didn’t and I did hold some resentment towards him. Only much later did I realise that my actions in the first place lacked moral worth, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant would have sternly told me so. I was using the gift as a mere means, not as an end in itself. Now when I give, I give without any expectation (and I think this also includes the expectation of gratitude) and I feel much lighter and better for it.

I go on about myself a lot on this blog. I do harp on about my achievements and I trumpet my milestones. But I would not have been able to do any of it without the gifts of my friends and family: the gifts of their time, sympathetic ear and unconditional love; the gifts of precious gems such as books, clothing and trinkets; the gifts of furniture (including my comfy Swedish couch) and woman-power from friends when I was moving into this flat. These are gifts which I hold dear and which it is not easy to return the compliment.

Gift-giving is not about expecting something in return. And receiving is not about giving in return. Gift-giving should be done freely and without strings attached. Likewise, if I want to give something in return, I do it because I freely choose to do so.

This will be the last post of the year. I want to thank you for the gift of your time in reading my blog, and that of your support and loyalty in encouraging me to keep going. My present to you is one of endearing gratitude.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I will see you in January 2014.

My mini-oven

To say that trifles make up the happiness or misery of human life is to voice a cliché no less true for being one, and no less worth remembering.”

– A.C. Grayling

I’ve decided to cook more. I could make a decent chicken curry, an ok spaghetti bolognese, and a pretty fluffy omelette. But, I was really scared of cooking. Inviting friends over for dinner was always quite a fearful prospect. I would dread the thought of what to cook, how to cook it and whether it would taste any good. So I would normally opt for my chicken curry and stir-fry vegetables for one dinner and then spaghetti bolognese for the next. I didn’t have many dinner parties.

It’s not that I was a bad cook; my fear meant that I just didn’t particularly like cooking. And the thought of making dessert was even scarier. I had in the past tried to make a Curly Whirly cake, a cake of such unimaginable sweetness from tonnes of sugar, chocolate and vanilla essence that what resulted was a dewy, gooey consistency with the vanilla icing being absorbed into the sponge. It looked awful and one teaspoon of it sent you into a psychedelic trip that would last at least three hours. I had made it one Christmas for the family. It couldn’t be saved nor turned into something else. It was left in the fridge for days, with me trying a little bit every day in the hope that it would taste that little bit better, as beef bourguignon tends to. Despite my wishful thinking and sending positive vibes to my Curly Whirly cake, it was still awful and hence abruptly discarded.

I spent my early childhood living in Malaysia. In Malaysia, it was fairly common for middle class families to have maids who did all the household chores: cooking; cleaning; washing and ironing; not to mention the child care. Our maid, Kakak, came with us when we moved to England back in the early 90s. I never cooked nor was I ever bothered to want to try. I took some cooking classes during secondary school. I remember making a clementine cheese cake of which the taste reminded me of a fridge – cool and sterile, with a slightly pongy whiff.

Looking back, I sort of wonder how I’ve managed to live a pretty healthy lifestyle after leaving home considering my deficiency in the cooking department. My repertoire (including the bolognese and it’s variations – shepherds pie, cottage pie, chilli con carne – and the curry and its variations – vegetable curry, beef curry, mushroom curry, prawn curry, egg curry) has served me well. But I really envied people who could whip up dishes pretty easily. My best friend would often invite me over for dinner. I both marvelled at and felt intimidated by her culinary expertise. But to her, it was nothing extraordinary, “Since I’m cooking it anyway, you might as well come over,” she’d say and would then summon up a sumptuous butternut squash and goats’ cheese risotto. Simples.

Last Thursday, as I perched my newly-bought brand new mini-oven against the ledge in the metro station, waiting for the metro, looking out over the car-park of a Carrefour hypermarket; the grey, drizzling, over-cast day did little to dampen my spirits. I was awash with emotion. It felt like my mini-oven was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to my happiness. I bought it – with my own money. I carried it – by myself – to my flat, a flat which I furnished myself, which I pay for – myself. With that oven, I would continue to learn how to cook well – for myself.

The previous paragraph probably sounds terribly melodramatic but I was brought up in an environment where many things were done or provided for me. Kakak was always there, cleaning up after me. When I was starting out my career in London, I lived in a house furnished by my parents, who were also my landlords. It is not easy to write about this without feeling some sort of guilt for my privileged upbringing. But I remain ever thankful and grateful to Kakak and my parents for the help, support and care they gave to me.

One of the first books that introduced me to philosophy is The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life by the philosopher A.C. Grayling. The book is based on his former weekly column, ‘The last word‘, in the Guardian. He divides the book into three parts: ‘Virtues and Attributes’; ‘Foes and Fallacies’; and ‘Goods and Amenities’. The last piece in the last part is called ‘Trifles’. He writes, “There are at least two senses in which something can count as a trifle: one, by being small and unobvious, and the other, by being ordinary, familiar or mundane. In both cases it takes observation to single it out and see it for what it is.” He says that we should not lose sight of the importance of the small things because then we understand better the significance of the big things.

My mini-oven is in relative terms, a small thing. It’s a mundane and ordinary good. But it’s significance has much greater worth. My mini-oven is my trifle. What’s yours?

P.S There will be no post next week but Living room philosophy will be back the week after.

The importance of being idle

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

– Winnie the Pooh

In between changing jobs, I am fortunate to find myself on a two week break. At the beginning of last week, I was humming and hawing as to what to do with all this spare time. Friends suggested booking a city trip, or visiting friends and family. Some suggested going to museums or catching the latest exhibitions. I had my own ideas, mostly focused around getting up early, finally doing my neglected chores,  and catching up on reading and writing.

It was in the middle of my chores last week when I had a few epiphanies. First, no matter how many chores I get done, there is always something else left to do. Secondly, there are not enough hours in the day to do all the stuff that I want to do. Thirdly, I am not physically able to get out of bed early when I don’t have a job to go to.

I decided therefore that on Saturday, I was going to be idle: I would not have any targets, or plans to make. I wouldn’t set my alarm. I would laze around, meet up with a friend or two and just go with the flow.

Being idle tends to get a bad reputation. When it got it’s bad reputation isn’t so clear. Certainly in the UK, being idle is particularly looked down upon. One possible reason is that it goes against the remainder of the Protestant work ethic. In an interview with French philosopher Pascale Bruckner on happiness, it was shared belief that to be a good Christian, you had to be in pain. Even in Catholic Europe, people were not allowed to have fun. Work was delivered by God as punishment for what Adam and Eve did. Clergymen often told worshippers that the only ways to achieve salvation and go to heaven was to work hard, to feel pain and to suffer. He states that it wasn’t until the era of Enlightenment when advances in medicine and production meant that the standard of living was higher and that pain was not necessarily a punishment from God. Collective happiness came to be seen as important for the well-being of society.

Being idle brought about the potential of evil, or at least mischief. I often heard my Mum say, “idle hands make for the devil’s work”. There are many variants of this expression, whether it makes the devil’s work, workshop or playground. Being idle could alternatively bring about insanity or depression. As the 18th century English poet William Cowper wrote, “Absence of occupation is not rest; a mind quite vacant is a mind distressed.” This poem was written some time after he had been committed to an asylum, so he may have had a point.

But what does the term ‘idle’ mean? If I am idle, I am considered lazy. If I am being idle, it usually means I am doing nothing, or I am bored. If something is idle, it is not significant nor worth of any importance. Or, it is not in use (like idle machinery).

On Saturday, I was idle. I got up late. I then spent a good half an hour, sitting on my couch, with a cup of tea in hand and a piece of chocolate, staring out of my window. Was I doing nothing? Perhaps on the face of it I was. But actually I wasn’t. I was enjoying the quiet time, illuminated by the bright sky, listening to the hustle and bustle of the city, savouring the chocolate as it melted in my mouth, feeling refreshed after each sip of tea. I was thinking: about past events; about my future. Sometimes, I was not thinking at all; just enjoying the moment.

Even if we are being “idle”, our brain is still stimulated; it switches to some kind of resting state. During this ‘resting-state activity’, blood flow to the brain is surprisingly only 5-10% lower than when the brain is active. The networks that the brain engages during the resting state are similar to the ones it engages when active. It’s not yet clear what this activity is for, but neuroscientists’ suggestions include memory consolidation: putting things that you’ve just learnt into your long-term memory; helping to organise or direct the flow of information to the different areas of the brain; or priming the brain for processing future information.

Creative minds will tell you that daydreaming is a productive activity and that great inspiration has come from being idle. Meditation is probably idleness in its highest form since one is completely relaxed, the mind just observes the thoughts that flicker across its screen until they fade. The mind and body do absolutely nothing. Herein lies the paradox: meditation is increasingly considered valuable for our well-being and mental health, and yet it means being idle.

If we use another term to describe being idle, such as being lazy, what exactly is being lazy? Being lazy for you may be to go for a walk instead of your usual jog, whereas a walk for me is activity. It’s all subjective isn’t it?

One can say that being idle is the opposite of being busy. “Busy” is a term that has been inflated to be something of great significance. It’s seen as “good” to be busy. Busy means you have a life, you have friends, you have very important things to attend to and most things seem so darn important. But for me being busy all of the time provides me with a poor quality of life. When you are busy, you don’t have the time to stop, think or not think, wonder, be open or flexible, or merely enjoy the present.

So the next time you feel like being idle (whatever that may mean), be idle! Watch the sun as it sets, or the rain as it trickles down your window pane. Watch TV, read, lie on your couch, listen to the things you can’t hear. Don’t feel guilty about it because let’s admit it, we are naturally lazy, just as the English writer (and great idler himself) Samuel Johnson remarked in his series of essays ‘The Idler’, “Everyman is, or hopes to be, an idler“. Enjoy this precious time of being idle because there will be many times when you cannot be idle. And you will wish you had been when these glorious missed opportunities had presented themselves to you.

In case you needed further convincing, seek guidance from another great idler, Winnie the Pooh: “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

30

“Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do. You are deciding your life right now.”

– Megan Jay

“Tired. Depressed. Unemployed. Single. Nearly 30,” read the first line of my journal entry of three years ago. I was 27 and already fretting about the big 3-0. It’s interesting that even though turning 30 was three years away, the fear of that age had already formed part of the miserable state I was in.

Turning 30 is one of the big milestones of our lives. By 30, convention has it that we are supposed to have achieved many things, mainly concentrated on the three Ps: prosperity, property and partner. If we haven’t done so (or are not well on our way to doing so) then we are made to feel bad about ourselves.

I am 30 years old. I rent a small one-bedroom flat. I have only started to save. I do not have a permanent job. I am single. I have never been more satisfied with my life as I am today.

I was delighted to say goodbye to my twenties. When I look back at them, I can recall many happy memories of travel, achievements and of time spent with loved ones. But they were always weighed down by a heavy heart: a love lost; suppressed passions; feelings of inadequacy.

Since turning 30, I have gained in confidence (and in grey hairs). I notice that I can exercise more authority as I have some experience and wisdom behind me. I am much more comfortable in my skin and much more open to change. I also value my time more: I don’t waste it on people or things that make me unhappy. Since I do view 30 as a milestone, it instils this sense of urgency that if there are changes I want to make in my life, I better start today. I believe that the choices I make today as a 30 year old have a larger ripple effect than compared to the choices I made at 20 or 25.

In her Ted Talk, Megan Jay drums it into the heads of twenty-somethings that their twenties are their defining decade, that they should not leave decisions concerning careers or love until their thirties. Those that tend to leave it till their thirties end up being under immense pressure to achieve in a shorter period of time, settling as a result, loaded with regret. She advises twenty-somethings to start taking steps towards the life they envisage now.

I understand the talk’s message but I felt ashamed that I only began making my changes at 29, not 20, possibly having wasted many years. But then again, why should we be constrained by age? We are entitled to go at our own pace and sometimes, it takes a long time to feel unstuck and change direction, or to feel like we are on the right track. When the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse how long it took to become real, he replied, “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”

Hitting the big 3-0 can cause regret, anxiety or relief. But if things haven’t worked out as planned or hoped by the time you are 30, it’s not the end of the world and you can always start making changes today.

And look on the bright side, turning 30 means that we’ve seen through yet another year on this awesome planet of ours.

The flip-side to failure

“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.”

– Oliver Burkeman

This week I had a job interview where I was asked if I had ever failed at anything. The interviewer had started the question on the default position that failure was alien to me. I had come across in such a confident manner that the question had appeared almost rhetorical.

“Of course!” I cried, “I’ve failed so many times!”

About a year and a half ago, I was obsessed with failure.  I had failed miserably at trying to become a barrister in London and I was beginning to accept that I was a failure. I guess I had never really “failed” before. If I failed an exam at school, I would study hard to get my grades back up. When it came to my career, if I had my sights set on something, I would strategise, manoeuvre and pester until I got where I needed to go.

Except for when it came to becoming a practising barrister. For some reason, this was a goal that I had failed to achieve. I didn’t quite understand why the Universe was really not letting me become one. I was prime lawyer material: I had a CV littered with human rights work and academic accolades; I enjoyed public speaking and arguing. On one occasion I got close to the coveted prize, but I never quite hit the mark.

After trying for three years, I decided last year to say “f**k it” and give up. It was at that point I became obsessed with failure. “What does it actually mean to fail?” I asked myself, “And why can’t we admit our failures: in careers, in love, in life? Why can’t we be honest and open about failure?”

So I went on my quest. Albeit, I focussed on my failure to become a barrister. I contacted a journalist at the Guardian who wrote about legal education and I suggested to him that he write about those people like me who would never get the chance to be one. He proposed that I write it myself. So I rose to the challenge.

If I wanted to at least try to answer my questions, I would have to begin by publicly admitting my failure. My aim of the article was to dispel – no – thrash this myth that failure is bad and it’s a sin to admit it.

I couldn’t believe the fantastic feedback I received from the article. Words of comfort and wisdom from my fellow failures poured in. The article had liberated us.

I’ve learned so many things about failure. In brief, that it’s good to fail! Because if you’ve failed at something, at least you’ve given it a go. I do believe in trying hard at something and keeping at it, but the key to well-being is to know when to quit. I also see the cosmic value in talking about failure, because by admitting failure, it makes us human, it makes us interesting, and not least we get a few sympathy votes (but don’t milk it).

Since I’ve “failed” so many wonderful things have happened, one being the creation of this blog. I enjoyed writing my story so much that it gave me the confidence to write more and tap into my creative side. I became more honest about where my talents lay best and what I really wanted for my life.

And once I started delving more deeply into failure, I discovered some wonderful insights, such as some of the most iconic people of past and present having failed at something. Martin Luther King scored below average on his test scores, Abraham Lincoln suffered many failures, Colonel Saunders had a thousand rejections before he got a partner to go into business with him. Failure was common among these success stories too.

Yet, for every failure-success story, there are probably more failure-failure stories (visit the Museum of Failed Products for example) and that is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. It is just a fact of life. Or one of probability: the more things we try, the higher the likelihood that we will fail at them (certainly at the beginning). But once we start realising that failure is part and parcel of life, perhaps then we will stop fearing it in such a way and become friends with it. Failure and I have become good pals.

In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman explores emerging studies on how too much positive thinking may actually do us more harm than good. By blocking out the negative: failure, uncertainty, fear, loss, loneliness, we actually make it harder for ourselves to deal with the inevitable failures in life.

Failure not only makes us healthier, more creative, innovative and resilient, but by being open about it, it makes us more likeable too, as no-one likes a show-off. And perhaps we can view someone who is a failure (I use this term affectionately) as a role model: you learn from their mistakes and you take encouragement from their courage.

To perhaps go against Oliver Burkeman’s anti-self help stance, I will end this post with my favourite quote on failure by the late Queen of self-help (who also failed by the way), Susan Jeffers of ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’: “I am not a failure because I didn’t make it, I am a success because I tried.”

The perfect role models

“You have been looking for the perfect Pepsi. You’re wrong. You should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis.”

– Howard Moskowitz

In his Ted Talk Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce‘, Malcolm Gladwell exalts Howard Moskowitz for changing how the food industry thought about food. Moskowitz, a market researcher and pyschophysicist, was hired by PepsiCo to find the perfect diet Pepsi. When charting all the preferences of consumer tastes according to the artificial sweetness of the cola, he was confused as to why there was no one preferred level of sweetness. The chart was an uncorrelated mass of results.

Later on, through his breakthrough with spaghetti sauces, Howard Moskowitz democratised the food industry. Like with diet Pepsi, he realised that there was not a perfect spaghetti sauce, but rather there were perfect spaghetti sauces. He believed that neither variation of spaghetti sauce was more superior to the other; and that there was no universal notion of how a spaghetti sauce should be. Howard Moskowitz taught us that since we have different preferences, to apply universal principles to food would most likely bring our total happiness down.

Watching this Ted Talk got me thinking about role models (bear with me). There has always been a sense that we should follow “one” role model to lead our lives. When faced with dilemmas or decisions, one of the most common questions people ask themselves is: “What would (insert most inspiring, outstanding or upright member of society here – e.g. Jesus, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Immanuel Kant) do?” When we were children, we were asked which famous person do we want to be like when we grow up. In our careers, we are often advised to seek out a leader in our field to aspire to.

As commendable as these approaches are, I don’t agree that they are entirely realistic or at times helpful. These outstanding members of society are, well, outstanding and unfortunately, not all of us are blessed with such ‘outstandingness’. Secondly, can we really look to that one role model to guide us through the multi-faceted aspects of life? And to top it off, we are not them (the role models), but us (me and you) – and because of this, we need different people to help us with the different parts of our lives.

It is widely reported that there are not enough female role models and that such role models can have a positive impact on women’s performance. I whole heartedly agree. But I would like to share the view that role models closer to home – in their many, and either female or male – have just as much of an impact.

I have certainly benefited from having role models who correspond to the many roles in my life: be they the unattainable ones or those that live next door. What I have found however, is that the latter have had a much greater impact on me: I follow a female colleague’s example of effectively managing expectations and setting boundaries at work; I look to the erudite and laid-back manner of an old professor when figuring out the ways of the world; I look at my best friend’s loving partnership when trying to set the standards of my own; I am spurred on by my mother’s relentlessness to always see things through, even when the going gets tough.

By testing different types of spaghetti sauce, Howard Moskowitz taught us about happiness. “That is the final and most beautiful lesson of Howard Moskowitz,” says Gladwell, “that in embracing diversity in human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.” Following the spaghetti rationale, we ought to embrace the wisdom of the many perfect role models in our lives. That, I believe, is a sure way to true happiness.