Perseverance is Not Always the Answer

I enjoy reading entrepreneurial books and articles. I have a fascination with people’s passions and what makes them do what they do. I’m also a fan of research and while running a business I wanted to know more and to ensure I was doing the right things. I remember reading some quote about how success is just on the other side of feeling like giving up. Reading that advice was really detrimental for me, in fact. You see, I’m not a quitter. I persevered so much that my health collapsed. To be fair, I didn’t heed the advice in the same articles of weeding out toxic elements and doing what you love.

Just searching for quotes on perseverance, you will find hundreds of examples encouraging people not to give up. My husband and I have similar values and we are both ultra-marathon runners which, by its very nature, requires perseverance. We promote this value a lot in our household and we encourage our kids to keep trying. Perseverance is a major force in my life.

In 2008 my husband and I took a trip to Japan. We ran the Tokyo marathon together and it was an amazing experience, really different from what we are used to. We are from a culture where people bail a race if you’re not fit enough or injured. Sure, you have to face the consequences if you do, in that the other runners will not let you forget it. But most people exercise common sense when it comes to their well-being. And of course there are those who just don’t have what it takes to get through the mental struggle of an ultra-marathon. I say mental because it’s not your body that fails you towards the end of a hard race.

 

We found it really funny to read the race guidelines for the Tokyo marathon. Several times, it was emphasised that it takes courage to quit. The cultural difference was so striking to us. And it is true, that there are people who would rather kill themselves than fail or be seen as a failure.

I inherited an ailing business that was really too far gone. I struggled through it for almost five years, while running ultra-marathons and parenting two small children. There were a number of conditions which set me up for failure but my ingrained refusal to quit pushed me so far that my own body turned on me. Of course, internalising everything did not help but you can’t change your nature. I should have changed the conditions and opted out earlier.

One of my parenting challenges is to observe when my children are in flow and to encourage more of it. And another is to make sure they don’t overdo the perseverance. If they already have inborn and value-enforced determination, pushing them to never give up is not always
the answer.

Focus on Strengths, Partner for Weaknesses

I was recently reminded of an exercise I did in around 2009 when I was struggling to adjust to having a child and a career. It’s called Gallup’s Strengths Finder. I bought the book, did the online test and digested the findings eagerly. According to the test, your main strengths don’t really change over time. So revisiting them now was quite meaningful. These were my top five:

  • Harmony – finding consensus, creating a peaceful environment, the mediator
  • Input – collecting information, sharing insights, learning
  • Focus – prioritising, then acting
  • Discipline – creating structure out of chaos, being efficient
  • Intellection – intellectual processing, introspection, analysis

How often to do we focus on our weaknesses and try to compensate or improve them? What I like about the Gallup approach is the focus on your strengths. Isn’t it just spectacular that we are all built so differently?

 

Some of the advice on the action plan for my strengths is about making time to think and write. How interesting as that is something I’ve neglected for years. I had a chuckle about the advice to be patient with those who are not as efficient. I’m a whirlwind in my kitchen. I calculate what takes the longest, get it going and whiz around getting a bunch of things done simultaneously. So it’s not surprising that it boggles my mind when my husband takes twenty minutes to make tea!

I wasn’t surprised about the discipline and focus although it is a seeming contradiction for a right-brained person. But I know that I’m a goal-driven person and I’m good at keeping meetings on track and making sure there are action-items instead of just rambling. I love to research and gather information and I’m using my blog to share insights in line with this strength. Having a medical sabbatical from work I’m able to rest and to spend a lot oftime processing the reasons for my health collapse. I am focussing on not over-thinking as I’m prone to do so, especially with time on my hands.

In terms of Harmony, I’ve always been the one in my family to mediate between the feuding parties. The saddest thing for me is that I’ve had to cut people out of my life for my own survival. For me to do that is drastic, considering that harmony is my top strength. Rayya Elias talks about always making sure your side of the street is clean. There comes a time when you realise that there’s nothing you can do about the other side of the street.

I’m a strong believer that we should not focus on our weaknesses and try to make them better. Rather, we should accept them for what they are and find other people to support us who are strong in these areas. For example, I would need a business partner who doesn’t mind admin and who can jump through the many hoops of bureaucracy that banks put in place in the process of ‘helping you’. I also know that there are certain types of people who I can’t lead and I simply won’t accept any future positions where I’m expected to do so.

A life without a fulfilling job is torture for me. I’m considering how to use my strengths in finding future roles that are suitable for me. I’ve said it before, but knowing yourself helps you make good choices about your future. And good choices lead to a happy life.

Laughter as Medicine

It is well-documented that laughter is good for you. In fact there seems to be quite a movement to stimulate laughter as a mechanism to reduce stress. I met someone once who conducts team workshops to laugh together for this very purpose. In my research on methods of healing, I’ve also come across Laughter Yoga, some sessions of which end with ‘laughter meditation’. I understand the benefits of laughter, but I also know that this is just not for me. Just as some people simply are not interested in meditation or a gratitude journal, forced group laughter is just something I can’t bring myself to do.

I am fortunate, however, to have two young children at home who bring sincere laughter to every day of my life. Sometimes they just have no idea why I’m laughing and other times we laugh together. I find that tickling them releases the most intense and cute laughter of all, and I end up laughing along. Once my oldest daughter, at around three years old asked me “What’s this terrible fish?” and I answered dryly, “chicken”. The thought of her assessment of my cooking, and what I’d have to do to the fish to gain that consistency, sent me into hysterics that she struggled to understand.

Another incident that still makes me chuckle, about 20 years later, is from university. I had a very special friend Mark who is also Catholic and pretty close to perfect. He was a star academic achiever, tidy, fun, responsible and really popular. We went to mass at the local church and on one occasion, he dropped the communion and it rolled like a coin on its rim across the alter while time seemingly stood still. He ran after it crouching over, grabbed it and put it into his mouth. He was, of course, mortified by the fact that he had dropped the Body of Christ on the floor! He showed the priest it was in his mouth by pointing dramatically and repeatedly before swallowing. Because church is such a serious place, it made it even more conducive to hysterical laughter under the circumstances. I think I laughed more on that day than in the rest of my 20s put together.

Towards the end of last year my health was at its worst. I struggled to find the joy in anything and I was really struggling to cope. In the Christmas holidays, with my kids being home, I was under quite a lot of strain. I had not yet started any medication to alleviate my symptoms. In order to escape the mayhem of the house, I went into my study and I watched dozens of short clips on YouTube. I really enjoy British humour and I am a big fan of David Mitchell. The clips of That Mitchell and Webb Look are so funny that they really did lift my spirit at a time when I was feeling physically terrible and very down as a result.

 

There are many people struggling with depression, ranging from minor to serious and for a variety of reasons. I would encourage you to find things to laugh about, even if you have to Google them. You are the best investment you can make in your life. Remember that if you’re happy, those around you benefit too.

Challenge vs Skill

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, he describes the how the optimum flow experience can be gained if we can balance our skill level with the challenge of the activity. If we are doing something that is well below our skills and the challenge is low, we are bored. If the challenge is too great in that we don’t have the adequate skills, we can experience anxiety. There exists a sweet spot where our skills and the challenge mostly matched, with the challenge being slightly greater. This is when we are in flow.

Skills vs Challenge

There are many opportunities for us to be in flow, be it in our work or leisure. My focus currently is to ensure that I create a future career around my flow experiences. For too long my work centred around tasks that drained my energy and frustrated me. In the next few months while I recover from my stress-induced condition, I’m trying to find flow experiences that are not too taxing. I’ve been told that the brain relaxes while doing creative activities so I’ve been drawing and trying to find ways to express myself creatively.

I bought a second-hand piano a while back, and while I played as a child, I’m quite rusty. My energy levels are too low to commit to a regular lesson right now, but I’ve been downloading some sheet music. I know that my skill level is very low at the moment, but I know that I can work at it to become more skilled. As my skills grow, I can increase the challenge by trying more difficult pieces. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his book ‘In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities’.

It is enthralling to know that within me lies the opportunity to play beautiful music. It’s something I’d love to share with my children. At the same time it is a little daunting but I think that is the fun of it. Nothing that is worth anything comes easily.

In the long term my work needs to centre around flow activities. I know myself well enough to know that I get bored not achieving things. That can be an impediment to my recovery so I’m occupying myself with things that can help me recover. I’m finding flow activities that may or may not be part of my long term career or leisure.

What talents from childhood or your past have you forgotten about? What have you always wanted to try? It’s important to note that passive activities like watching TV are distinctly not being in flow. How much more can we get out of our lives if we focus on flow activities that indeed make us more skilled and happier people?

How Do You Make People Feel?

I recently read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of many books in Maya Angelou’s autobiography. What an amazing woman, with immense talent! One of her famous quotes is “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

Looking back on the things I’ve said I know that I can be perceived as a know-it-all. I love to research and I battle worry with knowledge. Around having my first child, I read everything I could get my hands on about routines and how to care for them. I didn’t have any experience caring for kids but I always have the policy that I’m open to learning from other people’s mistakes. And of course, I like to share that knowledge in the hope that I can help others.

My first child slept through after eight weeks and I know that many mothers out there want to scream when they read that. I thought I had it all in the bag. Along came the next one and as much as I tried all the same strategies, she did not sleep at eight weeks but closer to two years! That was a humbling lesson for me.

I’m sure I made people feel that they were not doing the right thing or that I somehow knew something magical. I don’t have all the answers. I now believe that each individual justifies special treatment and to be appreciated in their own way. What works for one family doesn’t work for another and what works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another child. I’m a bit wiser now and less of a know-it-all, as contradictory as that might seem.

As an introvert, I often feel as though I’m not heard. If I’m interrupted, I’ll just stop, on the assumption that my views are not valued. We went to a social function recently where we were seated with people we had met but who are not close friends. They chattered amongst themselves about people we didn’t know and when I engaged one particular lady, she flat out ignored me. That left me feeling invalidated at a time when I’m pretty fragile as it is. It doesn’t take much effort or time to merely acknowledge someone and respond to them. But the difference in the way you make them feel can be enormous.

Pondering your purpose makes you think about your legacy. How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? I’m paying attention to the way I make people feel, primarily for them to be heard and acknowledged. I’m so glad everyone in the world is not like me. Our uniqueness is one of life’s true wonders. We each carry experience, skills, views and such a variety of talents. How interesting it is to learn from others and how important that they are left feeling valued for how special they are.

Baby Steps

A year or two ago I made a blanket for my friend. It took a really long time because I couldn’t dedicate hours a day to it. It was made up of 144 squares in a pattern that was not originally planned. I chipped away at it, stitch by stitch and square by square, refining the design regularly. Eventually the blanket was finished and the gratitude I received was so worth the effort.

It’s amazing how I managed to create something with small amounts of effort on a regular basis, even when I didn’t know how the blanket would turn out when I started. Right now my health is not so great and I have been very frustrated and concerned that I’ll never be well. I just need to shift my thinking to how I approached the blanket. I don’t know what my future looks like but I’ve got to tackle it hour by hour. And as long as I just keep chipping away, I’ll get to my goal in the end, even if it needs refining along the way.

Those of us with high standards tend to berate ourselves for not getting there fast enough. We think about all the things to be achieved and we get frustrated at the pace at which we are moving. Something that is really important for people like us to remember, is how far we’ve come and to celebrate the achievements.

I joined the family business in July 2010 and although I was immensely frustrated in the past few years that my vision was not achieved, I did take the company really far. I grew the revenue over 400% and clients 250% in four and a half years. And that’s in a difficult economic climate in a business I wasn’t passionate about. This was a business with no website that I took to one having a strong brand in its industry. Yes, it was too far behind to catch up but that doesn’t mean I didn’t make a success of what I had. And I ought to celebrate that. I brought my special talents and flavour to the organisation and although I didn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve, I did move the business forward.

 

Celebrating successes, small or large, doesn’t have to be arrogant or self-serving. It helps us remember how far we’ve come and gives us hope for the future. If I think about the me of 2010, I have learned a great deal and am much more knowledgeable about running a business. I plan to keep learning until the day I die. I’m going to count the blessings of the opportunities I’ve had to learn (irrespective of how my health has been affected) and celebrate successes. I need to chip away daily at getting well, at learning what works for me and how to restore myself to full health again.

The Danger of Overthinking

Despite being right brained, I’ve always been analytical. My trade when I was younger even has ‘analyst’ in the title. While analytical thinking can be an important asset in the workplace and is often highly valued by employers, it has its dangers.

 

Being an introvert as well as being analytical lends me towards overthinking. I want to solve the puzzle, understand why it happened and put in measures to avoid it happening again. With my current state of health being really poor, I may have slipped into overthinking. I’m spending a large amount of time wondering why this happened to me and hasn’t happened to other people. I’m wondering why mothers of four kids who work seem to be still standing. And yet I’m relegated to my bed for large chunks of the day.

Research shows that overthinking actually leads to unhappiness. The intention is to gain personal insight but there comes a point where we head down a pessimistic path of thinking that can even become quite distorted. The first step is to identify that it’s happening, which can be difficult to do as observing oneself is fraught with bias. And once we’ve identified it, we need to redirect our thoughts to the positive. For those with an optimistic tendency, we can use that gift to look for the silver lining.

A tactic I use with my children is distraction. I believe it to be highly effective when a child is overwhelmed by emotion. Once I’ve comforted her and she continues to be overwhelmed, I then make use of distraction. I ask her about something fun that happened at school or something she’s looking forward to. Sometimes I ask a question I know she’ll be interested in, that she probably hasn’t considered. Something like whether our cat likes to chase lizards. Don’t get me wrong, although I’m not a fan of drama, I have no issue with emotional expression. Sometimes they just get overwhelmed in the moment and need to find their way out. If the lizard question didn’t end the bawling, it’s more serious.

I’m going to try this tactic on myself the next time I start wondering if I’ll ever be able to live a normal life again. The silver lining of my health collapse is perhaps something about the revelation that my job was harmful for me and perseverance was not the answer. That’s fine and understood. But I can’t keep thinking that thought over and over. I need to employ the distraction tactic and to be truthful I find writing this blog to be a great help. It’s an opportunity to structure and formulate thoughts on how to adjust my life for the better. It helps me focus on a positive future and distracts me so that I don’t become overwhelmed by despair.

Best Possible Future Self

I have always been a goal-driven person and instead of New Year’s resolutions, I’ve set goals. I pulled out an old journal in which I wrote them down and had quite a bit of fun reading about myself twelve years ago.

 

In 2003 I set goals in the following categories: financial, professional, physical, relationships, spiritual, home, knowledge development. Most of the goals in the list are completed, things like ‘pay off house in five years’ and ‘gain a new skill’. But some are still so elusive ‘run 5 km in less than 25 minutes’. I also have a page where I wrote criteria for the ‘Perfect Life’. By age 34 I had accomplished all the things on this list – I had a loving husband, a healthy baby girl, professional success, overseas travel annually, strong relationships and a healthy fit body.

So I’m asking myself what went wrong between age 34 and 40 ? The past six years have seen a decline in my health so much so that I can’t work for several months. The introduction of kids into my life has some relevance for sure. Many busy mothers reading this will understand the strain that children introduce into your life. A lot of joy, which is well worth the strain, but they nevertheless contributed to my health decline – because I let it happen.

Two things that are evident by what I’ve written in this journal is that I didn’t manage to get on top of my stress and that I, even in 2003, aspired to have writing in my life. There is mention, even before kids of more time for myself. I did not make the time and space back then for me and how much was that exacerbated by the introduction of needy little people who literally suck from your body! I didn’t prioritise myself then and that was a big mistake.

In working on my goals in the past few years, I engaged a coach who is really great. She mostly works with working women and focusses on confidence and the ability to cope with the dual pressures of motherhood and career aspirations. She has a wonderful technique called a Vision Board where you literally make a collage of the things you aspire to. It can be electronic or physical and you should look at it daily. This encourages your brain to keep a look out for opportunities on the path towards these goals.

Visualisation is used by many professional sports people. They train their brains to live the visual image of success and thereby making it attainable. I remember reading about it when I was much younger and creating a mini collage of the things I wanted. The amazing thing is that I have achieved all of the things I included. I had an image of a jogger husband pushing a baby in a pram – check. I had a picture of a fit lady in the gym – check. I had a picture of a baby girl – check. I am now quite frightened by their power and am throwing away the pictures of babies as I certainly can’t handle another one in my depleted state!

The interesting thing is that I cut out those pictures and put them in a journal in my bottom drawer – and yet all of them were achieved. How interesting that the mere process of consciously choosing them and being clear about what I wanted had such an impact.

I’m still (yes, still) reading The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. A happiness-inducing  strategy that strongly appeals to me is that of formulating the ‘Best Possible Future Self’. She proposes spending twenty minutes on writing about your best possible future self. What will you have, and be, and do in the future?

I have done this exercise and not only is it a proven happiness booster but how empowering! It helps us clearly articulate what we really want and makes us think about what we need to do now in order to be that future self.

If this appeals to you, I’d highly recommend the activity. Have you articulated, in text or images, what you really want? How can God or the Universe or whatever you believe in, respond, if you don’t ask? Put it out there. What’s the worst that could happen?

Self-Care Roster

In my last post I was a misery and I won’t apologise for it because that’s reality. I’m done trying to please everyone and be something everyone expects me to be. Yes, I get down, and it will happen again.

The way I usually approach something that needs to be fixed, like my health, is to have a plan. I feel empowered when I take action so I’ve come up with a Self-Care Roster. Starting yesterday, I decided to do a few things daily and some things weekly or monthly etc. I know it doesn’t sound earth shattering but I have to DO something.

I’ve set myself a limit of five outings a week, excluding the school run. This ensures that I don’t overdo things and is worked into the roster. My self-care roster has four categories:

  • Grooming:  Haircuts, manicures etc. This helps reinforce in my mind the importance of looking after myself.
  • Responsibility: Medical check-ups for myself and my kids such as dentist, mammogram etc.
  • Healing: Much needed care in my current state, including things like reflexology, Body Stress Release etc.
  • Growth & Fun: Reading, writing, savouring, gratitude and knitting.

Reading is a way for me to grow myself and also helps me feel that I’m moving forward. I need to consume a lot of books as my list is really long. The more I read, the more material I have for a future book and my blog. I see it as research and it is not taxing.
Writing my blog helps me express myself. As an introvert and a people-pleaser I often bite my tongue on things I’m thinking. I don’t freely express my opinion for fear of retribution, appearing foolish or stimulating a debate I don’t want to have. So this is a way for me to express myself regularly and practise writing, thereby improving myself.

Some happiness experts recommend thinking about our happiest moments and days, be it remembering the day our child was born, our wedding day, being accepted into university or just a great day with family. This is the savouring activity which I plan to do daily for a week. I’m planning to look through my wedding album and the many photos we took of our children as babies.

Gratitude is a well-known happiness-enhancer. David Steindl-Rast, in his wonderful TED talk, talks about how gratitude can change the way we behave. If we are grateful, we don’t hate or envy others, we don’t abuse or hurt people.  In order to make the most of opportunities that come our way, we need to stop and listen and then grab them when they come along.

I think I’m naturally a grateful person and I often count my blessings. Something we do each night is to look at our sleeping girls and marvel at the miracle of them. No matter what kind of crazy they unleash in the day, they look so peaceful and angelic while sleeping. This is probably also savouring but also includes a degree of gratitude.

The knitting is a way for me to create something and I’m helping people at the same time. Our school has a project where the teddy bears are given to children on the night they are removed from their abusive families. It is the first thing of their new life. I’m knitting because I find it relaxing and I’m helping someone, which is aligned to my personal values.  Tony Robbins and many other influencers of personal growth, cite Contribution as a meaningful endeavour to enrich your life.

 

I have quite a few ideas around the healing activities that I’d like to explore but that’s perhaps for another blog post. Included in this is Nia as a contributor to wellness but I’m not up to it physically right now. The weekend illness taught me that. So I do what I can and I battle the despair with goal-setting.

Wallowing and Wondering

For someone with a naturally optimistic tendency and writing a blog about optimising happiness at work and in your life, I’m off track today. I’m wallowing in misery. As mentioned on the weekend I have a bad cold and am feeling awful. Feeling physically awful also tends to make you feel sorry for yourself. It started me thinking about just how often I catch a cold. During winter it’s about two per month. That means that I’m losing half of every month. With such a weak immune system, I’m likely to pick up every dangerous bug that lurks in the mucous of small children. And it hits me hard.

When kids get sick, their mother has to look after them no matter how near death I feel. I put my self-care on hold (as usual), and scurry around making them juice, giving medication and making them feel loved and comforted. How much I yearn for some matriarch to emerge from a mystical mountain, bossing around my family and telling them I’m not to get out of bed under any circumstances. I’ll call her Panacea, the goddess of Universal remedy in Greek mythology. Panacea, I’m open to anything – just bring it. If the silver bullet is that four letter word ‘Rest’, then just use the bullet for its intended purpose and put me out of my misery.

 

I have a feeling some people think I’m just putting it on,or it’s in my head. I’m no stranger to mind over matter. You can’t run almost 90 km in one day and not have a strong mind. The trouble is I have been suppressing what my body has been telling me for so long that I’ve lost touch. I can’t tell when I’m overdoing it or about to overdo it. I thought I was getting better at that but I don’t trust myself anymore. How can I make any plans? I want to experience things in order to write about them. I want to set up meetings and appointments every day so that I’m stimulated, growing and finding my flow. I’ve understood that I shouldn’t have persevered so long in a job I dislike. I get it. I’ve understood that I need to find something I love to do, and I’ve understood that I need a respite during my day. What more do I have to learn? And for how much longer must I recover?

I’m trying to have some fun in my days and evenings but it may even compromise recovery. I’m not sure I can just focus on healing and recovering. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about owning a creative mind being like having a Border Collie for a pet. You need to give it work or it will find its own work and you might not like what it does. How can I be expected to hang around the house, waiting and RESTING. I feel trapped and stuck. I’m unable to hope for and plan for a future when leaving the house is hard.

Yes, I know, it’s temporary and I’ll feel better soon. But some days are just like that and I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. I want to move forward. I want to make progress. I’m reading about gratitude and enjoying the moment, finding flow activities. But how can I do that if I’m feeling so awful? Without your health, life is very difficult. We don’t value it nearly enough until it’s compromised.

I often don’t want to publish anything when I’m feeling down. I have a tendency to wait until I’m feeling better again, edit and publish, of course with a positive ending. But that’s not so honest. We all have days where we just feel stuck. I’m impatient,  I want to get on with my life. When will I be able to go out and see clients all day and have enough energy to play with my kids? Is that so unrealistic?