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.

dilbert_unmentioned-goals

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Criticism: take it; leave it; but face it

In many ways, the work of a critic is very easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

– Restaurant critic Anton Ego, Ratatouille

Common career advice is to always ask for feedback when your application or interview was unsuccessful. My aversion to feedback or criticism had been deeply entrenched from childhood.  I think this was because of two reasons: the way the feedback was given and I conflated criticism of my work with criticism of myself. 

From my earliest memories, feedback was more of a command: I should or shouldn’t do it this way or that. It’s human nature not to like being told what to do and so I would naturally rebel: I would get defensive, shout, sometimes burst into tears. Once I did this, the focus obviously shifted away from the work to me.

I also believed that the criticism of my work was actually a criticism of who I was. I remember asking for feedback from a job interview. The interviewer emailed me back saying that one of my answers was “a bit odd”. As soon as I read this I burst into tears since only an odd person would make an odd answer. “I’m odd!” I wailed to my Mum down the phone.  

It is understandable why criticism is hard to take, as Oliver Burkeman reminds us in his Guardian column: “We want to feel we’re learning and improving, but we also want to be appreciated for who we are. So even when feedback’s delivered perfectly, we’re primed to react badly, because both needs can’t be met at once.” It’s this tension which causes us to flinch instinctively when receiving criticism, no matter how hard we try to welcome it.

Since I took criticism personally, I thought I had to accept it all and make the changes, without taking the time to think through whether the criticism was actually correct. I did it as a form of people pleasing: if I changed something to suit this criticism, I would also suit the critic. This is an impossible task, especially as people have different views. Therefore, I ended up pleasing nobody, least of all myself.

The epiphany came when I recently submitted a short story to a writers’ group. Most of the critics were positive about my story, accept for a couple of them. The first negative criticism was that my story was not convincing; it was a cliché no different from any other story. The second was that my writing style was too informal and chatty. I immediately wanted to defend my work but instead, I kept quiet and thanked the critics. I respected their honesty and took their views on board.

The key – however – was that I had the freedom to decide whether to accept or reject the criticism. I could do this because I showed up, and the purpose of writing the piece was not to please anyone, but to tell a story. Having confidence in my ability made the criticism much easier to handle, and much less personal. In fact, criticism is – by and large – not personal.

Oliver Burkeman emphasises that it’s better to focus more on how we deal with feedback rather than how it is delivered, especially due to the tension mentioned above: “We all need to get better at hearing feedback,” he advises, but, “that doesn’t entail always accepting it.” What’s more, we ought not to get defensive when we get feedback that we consider unfair. Instead, we ought to try to see where that viewpoint is coming from and to demand more clarity if needs be.

It’s only by subjecting our work to the criticism of others that we can improve it. But it’s also worth remembering the above quote: the job of the critic is easy, and our work will always be more meaningful than the criticism attached to it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Little victories

I had a little victory this week: I created Living room philosophy’s new website (with a little help from WordPress)! I call it a little victory because I guess it is a relatively small achievement. But, as I will explain, a little victory still counts.

In his article Small victories, Oliver Burkeman writes about how small victories can yield better results of well-being than big ones: they are easier to achieve, and they can also break down the big ones into manageable pieces. One poignant illustration is his reference to the organisational theorist Karl Weick, who claimed that some of the big shifts in society came about through small victories. That in fact, having big goals can be so daunting that they tend to put people right off having them, let alone doing anything about them. He sums up Weick’s advice like this: “Want to change the world? First stop trying to change the world.” Advice, which no doubt chimes with me.

I had a day of little victories last October. My friends and I participated in a relay marathon, with each of us running a part of it. When it was my turn, the heavens opened up and showered me in all their glory, lasting the full length of my run. Not only was I getting soaked to the bone; I was trailing miles behind extremely seriously-minded and fast runners; and I had a big hill waiting for me at the end of my route. Naturally, there were moments when I was close to hyperventilating with panic, but I knew that the only way I was going to get through it was to focus on my breathing, try to enjoy the green scenery and possibly the rain. I completed my run: little victory no. 1.

I had not brought a change of clothes. My team-mates were all stationed outside in the stadium warming up, warming down or cheering on others. Being drenched and beginning to feel the chill, I headed to the changing room to seek warmth. It was fairly small and cramped with people desperate to get dry. There were two big, bare radiators beside the showers. I wondered why they hadn’t been snapped up by bodies or wet clothes. Like a shot, I flew over to them. They were stone cold. Assuming at first that they were broken, I was about to walk away, crestfallen. I then noticed that the dials were on zero. I twisted them: the heat began to warm me up and dry me out. Little victory no. 2.

Once I was dry, my team-mate suggested getting a complimentary massage. In the queue, we started talking about relationships when she asked me what I look for in a man:

“Well, er, someone, ” I hesitated, “nice?” I replied meekily.

“What do you mean by nice?” She retorted, “like, nice – as in – nice and boring?!”

“No!” I exclaimed and then I began to fumble my words, coming up with a vague description of my ideal man.

“You need to be specific,” she advised, “it’s all about visualising what you want and sending it out there, because that’s how you’ll get it.”

She then pointed to the three male masseurs and asked me which one I liked. There was one guy who stood out, he was about 5ft 11, with a pale complexion, tightly cut auburn hair and slightly scruffy stubble. He looked French. I pointed to him. She then did some clever manoeuvring in the line in the hope he would massage me.

As if the Universe was proving her theory, the cute masseur did end up giving me a massage. His name was Olivier, he was from Brittany and had recently moved over to Brussels. We had a nice chat. When my massage was over, my team-mate remarked how Olivier had spent longer with me than her masseur had done with her. She patted me on the back and called it a little victory.

At the time, I thought that my encounter with Olivier was my first little victory of the day, but actually it was just one of several. It is important to recognise and remember the little victories – no matter how trivial they appear – since they are victories nonetheless.