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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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.

Finding the highest expression of ourselves

Passion is your greatest love. Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent.

– Larry Smith

Last week, I gave a careers talk to my former secondary school. I had been tracked down via LinkedIn and was contacted because my career path looked interesting.  I decided that I would use this opportunity not just to talk about my professional life but also to provide some tips about what I’ve learnt over the years about careers. I know that when I was 17 and making decisions about University,  I would have liked to have heard similar advice.  For your interest, I’ve provided my top ten career tips at the end of this post.

I chose my University course predominantly according to what was most likely to get me a job. I had seen the long hours, sacrifices and hard work my Dad had put in throughout his working life to provide his children with a comfortable upbringing. Both my parents endured hardship that is unimaginable in our society today. My Dad in particular rose out of poverty by winning scholarships to prestigious schools and Universities. I thought that I would have to do right by my children, in the same way that my parents had done right by me. At 17, the only way I felt I could do this was to choose a job which may not give me particular enjoyment, but paid well and gave me security.

When I was lately confronted with failure, I decided to become honest with who I was. I realised that life is indeed short and I can no longer spend it doing the things I ought to do instead of what I would love to do. I made a list of my personal qualities, what I enjoyed doing, what brought me pleasure and what came natural to me. And guess what? Being a lawyer did not make it on the list! It was then that I turned to the book ‘What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers’ by Richard N Bolles.

The section of this book that I found really enlightening was the epilogue at the back, entitled ‘How to Find Your Mission in Life’.  I take two profound insights from it that I can benefit from. First, that my mission/calling/dream job takes time. I have to take things one step at a time, and I have to understand that I won’t necessarily know where each step will take me. This ties in quite nicely with what Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement speech about joining the dots: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He continues, “Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path.

The second insight is that my mission in life may not be grand or life-altering, and I may never reap the rewards that following it brings. That in fact, my “mission” may just be to deal with the daily trials and tribulations with more kindness, fairness and grace.

So having a purpose in life can be very simple one. Yet, I do believe that one of the sources of my happiness is to do the things that I love. Larry Smith argues that we will fail to have a great career if we do not act on that which we are most passionate about. Steve Jobs agrees that the only great work is to love what we do. But there are costs involved in pursuing our passion. First, we need to know what it is. Secondly, realising what our passion actually is, added on top of the fact that we are not actually realising it, is really scary. Doubts about our ability invade our minds. Then there’s feasibility. Even if we find our passion, can we make a living out of it? If we are already quite experienced in one career field and have a family, can we really just recklessly up sticks and pursue our passion? And what about the hand that life has dealt us – that some of us may not have the luxury of doing what we love because of economic or social circumstances?

Larry Smith and Steve Jobs take no prisoners when they affirm that we must do what we love. But, their message is so powerful because they each use a weapon to stun and shock us into reality: Smith uses regret; Jobs uses death. They are connected. Being on the brink of death and regretting the fact that I didn’t at least try doing something I loved is a terrifying thought.

Four years ago, I went back to my secondary school to help out at a careers evening. That time, I sat in the politics and law section speaking to students eager to know more about these fields. I remember one girl who came to me. She told me that she was worried about her future as she really wanted to study art but felt pressured to do law instead. As if from nowhere, I gave her this piece of advice: “Do what you love and your career will come to you. It will lead you to the right path.”

I know that this may not be easy, but I think we have to at least try.

Here are my top ten tips on career that I recently gave to the sixth form of my secondary school:

Gemma’s top ten tips

1. Please, please, please, please do what you love

Whether this is in your studies, in your working life or in your hobbies, please do not forgo what gives you great enjoyment, pleasure, fulfilment and satisfaction for the sake of what society/parents/teachers expect of you, or, what you think you should be doing. If you forgo what you love or try to suppress it, in the long run you will be unhappy. If you only take away one tip from this list, please let it be this one.

 2. Find outlets to channel your loves and passions

We all have passions and loves, we just find them in different things and express them in different ways. If you are studying a subject (or doing a job) which is suppressing your passion then try to find ways to let it out (like with extra-curricular activities).

3. Be open to trying new things

You can and should have at least a few passions (or many). If you are struggling to find your passion(s) then one way to start is to say yes more and try out new things. Saying yes more does not mean you can’t say no (and there are definitely times when you can and should). If you are in tune with your passions you will start figuring out which ones you can make a living out of and which should just stay as hobbies. Also, by trying new things you never know where they may lead.

4. What you thought you wanted to do at 18 may not necessarily be what you end up doing

I’ve known many people (including myself) that started out doing one thing and ended up doing something completely different. Sometimes your career changes because of circumstances beyond your control or because you realise that what you are doing is not right for you. It’s ok to change your mind and change your direction. So because you don’t know what life brings, it is far better to study what you really enjoy now than choose something because it will give you job security in the future.

5. It takes time to get your dream job

Unless you just happen to be in the right place at the right time (with all the hard work you have put in), it is unlikely that you will get your dream job tomorrow. So in the meantime, enjoy the ride! Try not to force it, go with the flow, create space for things to flourish and for ideas to flower. Also, if you do have a big dream, try breaking it down into little steps, taking it one step at a time – it is known that some of the big shifts in society came about through small victories. Focus on the small victories.

6. You will face failure and uncertainty in your life

There’s no running away from it. You will just fail at something. You will also face uncertainty. I know that times are hard for young people, I know that jobs for life are very few on the ground. But it’s also a time which is ripe for opportunity – to be creative, innovative, think out of the box. If you have to get a stop-gap job to tie things over whilst you think about the next step or to allow yourself to do the things you love then do it! If you can afford to take a break from work or study to really think about where you want to go next, then do it! If you fail, who cares? You gave it a shot and it just means something better is out there for you, just keep going!

 7. Create networks and get creative

If there are people you know of or heard about who are doing the job you would love to do, seek them out either through social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter (or google them – you never know how easy it could be to contact them) or if you know them through friends of friends of friends. Exploit weak ties, looks for gaps or niches in the job market . Use the internet to publicise/showcase your work and skills or create your own job!

 8. There are more jobs out there than being a doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc

At career fairs we only see these type of professions because a lot of the time they sponsor the fairs and they are looking for young blood. According to research, there are at least 12,860 different occupations or careers that you might choose from! Hurrah for diversity!

 9. Your primary reason for choosing a course should not be because it will give you job security

Job security is a factor and it is an important one. But, it should not be the overwhelming reason for choosing a University course. Also, due to the rapid changing nature of the economy, jobs that are considered secure now may not be in ten years time.

 10. Please watch these great TED TALKS

The first is ‘Why you will fail to have a great career’ by Larry Smith – http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_smith_why_you_will_fail_to_have_a_great_career.html

and the second is ‘Why 30 is not the new 20’ by Megan Jay – – http://www.ted.com/talks/meg_jay_why_30_is_not_the_new_20.html

They both give fantastic advice on careers and on life.

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.