Thursday, June 23, 2011

Depression: 10 tips for banishing the "black dog"

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on “The Darkest Hour” – those moments before things improve when we have plunged the depths. All seems hopeless at these points – not least because we are uncertain where the bottom lies. Our fall seems relentless, with no net or ledge in sight to break our fall.

The blog generated some response, which is always heartening. But it was also concerning. When down, it’s hard to look up, or even stop the fall. So talk of “darkest hour” can only ever – I now realise – be retrospective. “Oh yes, that was the worst moment”, we can state once on the mend. While there, however, such a perspective is impossible.

Of course, all those self-help gurus would state that we can break our own fall, find our own ledge. It’s all a question of changing our thinking, they’ll say. While accepting depression as a mental condition that requires medical treatment, many still think our acts and thoughts play a major role in making us feel so down.

For instance, chief motivational guru Anthony Robbins emphatically writes that depressive states are something we have created for ourselves. We have had to work to get ourselves in such a place, he notes – perhaps through how we perceived certain events, as well as how we hold ourselves, how we breath, the things we say in our head, or even through excessive alcohol or drug use. In fact, some people – he states – can find this the most comfortable state to be in, helped by secondary gains such as allowances from peers and sympathy from loved ones. But just as we worked hard to get ourselves in such a place, says Robbins, we can – and should – work to get ourselves out of it.

Yet this seems a little glib to me. Such words are easy to say, and make sense at a primary level. Banishing the “black dog” – as Winston Churchill used to call his periodic depressions – is no easy task. Nonetheless, we can at least try and lift the clouds – perhaps through small actions that, at first, feel forced. After a while, however, they may, just, help us spot that elusive light at the end of the tunnel.

Here are my – totally non-scientific – thoughts**:

1) Be aware of our state. Sure, we can pursue the indulgences of our misery. We can drink too much, play melancholic music and wallow in our despondency. After all, any bungy-jumper or sky-diver will tell you that falling is a pleasant sensation (though not one I intend to experience). But, at some point, the bungy rope kicks in or the parachute opens. Be aware – very aware – that, at some point in our mental descent we’ll need to break our fall and that our current state must be viewed as no more than a temporary indulgence.

2) Note the positives. Having spent 10 minutes feeling like a loser, we should spend another 10 minutes noting the positives in our life, no matter how meagre they feel or how refutable they seem. Health, friendship, family, income, the fact we are alive and therefore tomorrow’s coming – anything. Just note that – amongst the doom – good fortune exists. Write it down.

3) Note the problems. Keep with the writing for a moment, because it may help to also write down our misfortunes. Why do they feel like such a calamity? What went wrong? Where was the wrong turning? And what are the lessons that can prevent a repeat?

4) Plot the steps for redemption. Sure, we may think “what repeat?” There’s no second chance with this one. But I thought that with my first book. So much so it took me 10 years to write a second. Yet that was my decision. I could have written a second book immediately – there was nothing stopping me. That said, the 10 year gap resulted in a very different – and much better – book. But I had to make that second chance a reality. Why not plot the steps required – however unlikely they now seem – to making that second chance a reality?

5) Plan 10-years hence. That said, 10 years is not a bad timeframe. We need to give ourselves a significant runway to overcome our major setbacks. In many cases our despondency regarding our chances is no more than our impatience. We have drawn too tight a timeline. Stretch weeks into months and months into years, and we give ourselves a far greater chance of success. And remember, it’s the direction of travel that’s important for our mental well-being – not the destination (which can cause a sense of deflation if reached too quickly). Destinations are for compass setting. Once heading in the right direction – no matter how slowly – enjoy the progress.

6) Maintain the routine. While depressed, we should maintain our routine, no matter how hard that seems. Go to work, keep that dental appointment, visit our parents at the weekend, keep that date with a friend. Assuming you are bad company and withdrawing is a colossally self-reinforcing move. Sure you may be bad company for a few minutes, but so what? Most people enjoy hearing others’ misfortunes (as long as it doesn’t go on and on) – it makes them feel empathetic. Also, keep getting dressed, keep washing, shaving and – especially – exercising (and if you don’t exercise, go for a long walk or bike ride – or just visit a museum). It’s ridiculous to try and look the part as well as feel it: life isn’t a movie, so don’t act like it is.

7)Break the routine. No, I’m not contradicting myself. Find room to add another dimension. Haven’t been to the cinema for years? Go (though choose a comedy). Never seen an opera? Do so. Always wanted to learn to ride? Now is your chance. Invest in your happiness.

8) Be nice to strangers. Don’t project your depression onto others through irritability or bad manners, especially with respect to strangers. If you usually say good morning to the doorman, force yourself to keep doing so. Their positivity will radiate back. But so will your negativity if it’s stronger. So be false – maintain the veneer. It may just produce a moment that shatters the pain.

9) Give something up. Sugar, caffeine, smoking, chocolate, meat, pornography, late nights, trashy novels, TV, alcohol, pot-smoking, fatty-foods: anything that doesn’t add to your long-term well-being. Just one thing – I’m not asking you to become a hippie or a monk. Dumping something bad for you will immediately make you feel better, reframe your negativity (because you’ve achieved a small victory) and distract you from your current misery.

10) Donate to charity. Something small but significant: £10 perhaps. And don’t discriminate with respect to the cause (or you’ll potentially reinforce negative feelings). Why not give £10 to the first mainstream charity box you find (perhaps the first charity shop in the High Street). After exercise, nothing triggers the release of endorphins more readily than a charitable deed. And don’t look for a thank you. In fact, do the opposite: just this once, make sure no one knows you’ve done it. This is your small private victory against the “black dog”.

**Depression is a clinical condition that requires treatment. The above deals with event-triggered despondency for those only occasionally triggered.

Robert Kelsey is author of What’s Stopping You? Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Whether Peckham or Essex – dads rule

Father’s Day approaches, and with it the need to recognise his role in my upbringing. Given the fact I write of my awkward relationship with my father in What’s Stopping You? I more than most need to pay my dues. Yet I’ll do so tangentially if I’m allowed – via a strong fatherly example I came across in my PR work.

At Moorgate, we have recently started working with a video production company based near us in Spitalfields. In fact, I met the CEO in the gym and we got chatting about the fact many of our clients are becoming keen on converting articles into videos. We’ve since kept his company gainfully employed. Our clients appreciate his professionalism – turning around projects on time, within budget and with flair and thought for the content.

From my dealings with this particular CEO, he’ll not mind me labelling him a High-AM – someone with high achievement motivation (as I write in What’s Stopping You?). He approaches meetings and projects expecting success, in fact is somewhat surprised when that’s not the outcome – although is certain that it will be, perhaps with a small adjustment (usually in the price!).

Yet there’s nothing in this man’s background suggesting the inevitability of this approach. He was brought up in a tough part of south London and mixed with childhood friends that became drug dealers and even violent criminals. He had to watch many of his peers adopt the swagger of youthful criminal success, as well as watch them later being arrested, banged up and, on several occasions murdered – putting my own rough-edged youth in exurban Essex somewhat into perspective. Yet he never strayed from the certainty of his route – despite being aware of the potential prejudices he faced as a black entrepreneur selling services to the privileged elite of the City.

As I have discussed previously, immigrants – and their children – are proportionally more likely to start businesses, making this unremarkable. Yet it would be doing him a disservice to assume this man’s cultural background fitted comfortably into the professional financial/City landscape I occupy and he was successfully selling into. Sure, I’d defend the City as a meritocratic place – far more so than other industries I’ve worked in such as media (despite its protestations). But he undoubtedly had to overcome preconceived ideas about him and his background in order to win over this particular audience. Certainly, I did as an Essex lad with a state-education. So it would have been doubly so for him. Yet, boy was he winning them over: with diligence, with service and with strong results.

Eventually, I could no longer resist my curiosity. I wanted to know his story. It was then he told me of his tough Peckham childhood and his determination to “get on”. Aware of the hurdles, he used them to his advantage – offering corporations the sharp eye for the cool look while offering good service and prompt attention.

“But I was lucky,” he concluded. “My father was a strict disciplinarian. He was very old fashioned and made sure I stayed on the straight and narrow.”

This got me thinking about my own dad – now sadly suffering from Alzheimer’s. As What’s Stopping You? explores I had a far from easy relationship with my father as a child – in fact his treatment of me is one of the root causes of my own insecurities (for which, as an adult, I now take full responsibility). Yet my video production CEO’s instant and unambiguous recognition of his father’s contribution to his undoubted success shamed me. With my book now published – and with my childhood traumas outlined as an example of the early-years development of adult insecurities – I need to acknowledge the positive influences of my father.

1) Academic drive. As stated previously, I was an academic disaster – leaving school at 15 with one O’ level (geography, taught by the school’s only enthusiastic teacher). But my father was a structural engineer and this acted as a powerful benchmark. I was certain I was capable of a university degree, which I achieved via nightschool A’ levels and hard graft. Only from this distance do I appreciate that my conviction was influenced by his example.

2) Bookish. My dad was always reading – mainly books on the Second World War. This made me very aware of the power of books and the world they opened up (although one mainly restricted to theatres of war between 1939-45 in our house). This may seem obvious to middle-class readers. Yet, believe me, I entered many Essex households in my childhood and youth that contained no other book bar the telephone directory.

3) History. In fact I exaggerate – dad loved all of history. And I too love history – being made aware of the fantastic perspective it offers. Whenever I hear arguments I consider ignorant or simply wrong-headed (from left, right and centre) it’s nearly always due to a total and utter ignorance of history. To know history is to understand the bus ride you take, the street you cross, the building you live and work in and even the person you buy your coffee from. What else gives you that perspective?

4) Work ethic. “No one owes you a living,” dad would often say – perhaps when I preferred the duvet to getting up and doing something constructive. He was by no means a disciplinarian – being far too busy working most evenings and half the weekend. But his example of hard work – and his “no pain, no gain” philosophising – had an undoubted impact.

5) London. Although, we lived in the boring exurbs beyond the city limits I’ve always loved London and consider myself a Londoner – eventually rejecting its only serious rival (New York) because I missed it so. My father was also a proud Londoner and instilled both my love – as well as my knowledge – of this great city.

6) West Ham. In fact, I’m not that grateful for this one. He was brought up off Green Street in Upton Park so I guess he had no choice. But his insistence that no son of his follow an alternative team – and that, once “chosen”, I could never change my football team (with even changing my gender allowable prior to this crime, in his view) – has provided me with miserable footballing fare for too long. I recently ordered my eldest son’s first replica kit for his sixth birthday. It was Arsenal (the boy’s choice after I steered him away from Chelsea or Tottenham). Sorry dad – but thanks for the other values.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

We the people: discover your true values, and the goals become obvious

One aspect of What’s Stopping You? generating troubling feedback is goal setting. I state that goals must reflect out true values – not those of others (such as parents, siblings, peers or rivals). Only then will we pursue them with enough energy and willpower to overcome the inevitable setbacks.

But of the goals we set, how do we know which ones are our goals – based on our values – and which are based on the values of others? And by others, I don’t mean just those around us. Values are thrown at us every day: from lifestyle advertising; from celebrity behaviour; even from the “worthy” statements of politically-motivated associates. Cutting our way through this lot requires thought and planning, which in the book I tried to encapsulate in the concept of generating “Our Constitution”.

I named it Our Constitution after the US Constitution, which is a document I have admired since studying it at university. It is brief, succinct, flexible and was a strong indication of the values of the new republic. Whenever the USA has veered from the path set by the Constitution – even with its original sin of slavery – the Constitution has eventually made it abundantly clear where it has erred. Such is the strength of the document that, when living in the US, I couldn’t help noticing that demonstrations of all political persuasion marched waving the stars and stripes flag and made references to the true American values they were fighting for – as enshrined in the Constitution. That’s one powerful document.

So we need our own constitution – a document far stronger than a mission statement that can end up being no more than a one-line goal-setting statement. This involves recording our most important values, which then directs our goal setting. Meanwhile, mission statements can still send us down the wrong path, which may simply line us up for a terrible reckoning once – perhaps a long way down the line – we realize we’ve been following goals not in tune with our values. Certainly, Our Constitution is a document that must remain valid no matter what. Our goals can change, and must. But Our Constitution is our mental totem – hence the need to make it strong enough, but also flexible enough, to carry us through both the triumphs (helping us retain judgement) and the setbacks. Indeed, only once driven by our true values are we able to cope with the setbacks – no longer seeing them as a reflection of our unworthiness but as simply a step towards our value-based goals, albeit one that, this time, failed to provide the optimum result.

Before any goal-setting exercise, therefore, we need to fully understand what motivates us, and this means taking a long hard look at our values and principles. Yet these maybe difficult to find – not least because they may be barely formed, which makes the exercise all the more important.

Perhaps my own story can help. As a schoolchild, I was fascinated by the wider world. While unable to focus on formal studies (taught by unenthusiastic teachers in a broken comprehensive) I was well versed in the geography and history of even the most obscure countries. And I had a strong handle on even local politics – knowing the issues that divided the parties and even the nuances of policy (none of which was taught in the school). Much of this initially supported fantasy game playing (seen as a little odd to outside observers such as my parents). Overtime, however, it also gelled into strong creative writing skills that took me way beyond any curricular activities (in which I struggled because of my poor spelling and grammar). My mother spotted this and encouraged me towards journalism. Yet my father dismissed such thoughts as irrelevant, unstructured and unprofessional. He was a structural engineer with letters after his name and that was his benchmark.

Of course, my father was the dominant character in the family so I pursued his values, yet never with passion. I left school with only one O’ Level (geography, unsurprisingly) and worked at a friend of my father’s as a trainee building surveyor. This mainly involved holding stripy poles in the muddy fields of east Essex but he also enrolled me – generously – on a day-a-week diploma course in order to help me along the tortured path towards qualification.

Yet I bunked the course in favour of days spent wandering the streets of London – a city that I was determined to know intricately. It was exciting, vibrant, historical, complex, cosmopolitan, and in the early 1980s a political powder keg: it had everything my true values cried out for. But the imposed values kicked in and I used the days searching for a trainee building surveying job in London, which I eventually found, and initially enjoyed. I was looking after the housing stock of the London region gas board and this took me to enough peculiar nooks and crannies and led me to enough personal drama to satisfy my own unformed values.

But time was marching on and my father wanted a plan. I shared the office with many young professionals – all of whom were graduates and none of whom seemed any more intelligent than me. Their encouragement convinced me that – despite my own disastrous academic progress – I was capable of a university career. So I enrolled on some evening A’ Level courses. One was history – and from the first lecture, my real passions were alight.

Finally, the scales fell from my eyes with respect to education. The depth of historical research and analysis required for an A’ Level history course at last tapped into my latent educational abilities. Finally I was pursuing something I truly valued. I was fascinated by the world and how we got here. I went to every lecture and soaked it up – staying late for the post lesson debate and avidly reading more deeply into the subjects than I needed to. I eagerly pursued sections of the curriculum the teacher warned against as too complex – such as the history of Ireland – and my essays, for the first time in my life, were winning top marks. I fell in love with learning. I needed no motivation, no focus on reward, no efforts at generating willpower: I had the lot because I was pursuing a goal in line with my true values.

Ultimately, I achieved an A and later won a high 2:1 from the University of Manchester. My values – to intellectually explore the world – were being pursued with vigour and love. From here the goals were obvious, desirable and achievable – and resulted in the journalistic career my mother suggested and which took me all over the world, meeting economists, politicians and bankers.

Yet everyone has that spark in them, whether formal education has brought it out or not. We just need to find it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Megalomania, imposter phenomenon and the fear of failure. Or, why the barrow boy went missing

I wrote a few weeks ago about how, in my opinion, trucker Edward Stobart was driven by fear of failure. His determination to be judged by his spotless and ubiquitous trucks, and his shyness when dealing with people, all said to me that here was a man with fear-based insecurities.

Yet fear of failure can also drive bad behaviour. In fact, it can turn us into criminals. Such can be the mental terror of low achievement that – instead of indulging in avoidance tactics (as with Stobart and his reluctance to meet people) – we go full-throttle in the other direction, eventually (but wilfully) crossing the line with respect to acceptable behaviour. Even here, however, it may be possible to, in fact, see a person so desperate not to fail, or so desperate to be accepted, that they’ve made calamitous choices that can be explained by frustration or perceived (or real) prejudice or lack of opportunity.

This can certainly be the case when examining those that break the law in order to cover up their failures. Seen through the lens of fear of failure, some obviously criminal acts become more understandable, even if not more justifiable. Two cases stand out for me, perhaps because of my background in finance. In the UK there’s Nick Leeson, the “rogue trader” that brought down Barings, and in the US there’s Bernie Madoff, the daddy of all Ponzi schemers.

Leeson brought the venerable Barings Bank to its knees in 1995 due to a series of failed bets on Japanese equities. Rather than declare his equity derivatives losses, and confess his failure, Leeson set up a series of secret accounts to hide the losses. Meanwhile, he furiously tried to gamble them away – a tactic that can, and did, spiral out of control. The bank collapsed after Leeson’s bets crumbled in the dust of the Kobe earthquake in January 1995.

In Rogue Trader, Leeson’s own account of his actions, he claimed no malicious or criminal intent, and I believe him. He was a state-educated lower middle-class lad from Watford working for a posh bank in a senior and trusted role (as one memo from a board member famously stated: “he knows what he’s doing”). There was a clear touch of “imposter phenomenon” about him, where (in his head) his strong performances counted for nothing because he was not of the right stock.

Indeed, when the losses were uncovered and he went briefly into hiding, one of the directors revealed that Leeson’s assumptions regarding snobbery were not so far off. “One of our barrow boys has gone missing,” he declared, which at least did me the service of not having to invest any sympathy for a bank that had so little understanding of the motivations of its employees.

And, in my opinion, it was this insecurity that drove Leeson to criminality. He never intended stealing the money. His aim was to make money for his employers and thus prove his worth. He was also concerned for his team, and the blame that may be apportioned to them. Yet fear of failure destroyed his judgement – resulting in the hidden losses, the collapsed bank and his arrest and imprisonment.

The US example is more controversial because his crime is greater, the victims true innocents and it is more recent – indeed the corpse is still warm on this one. My evidence for Bernie Madoff’s fear of failure comes from the Wizard of Lies by Diana Henriques, who covered the collapse of his US$50 billion Ponzi scheme for the New York Times. Like Leeson, Madoff grew up in a lower-middle class neighbourhood on the edge of the metropolis – this time in Queens, New York. His father’s business ventures usually failed, which created a great impression upon the young Bernard. At all costs he wanted to succeed – and was determined to avoid the negative judgement from others that was the fate of his father.

This led him towards his first fraud – when managing money for around 20 clients. Trying for higher returns to please sceptical investors, he lost money on risky stocks. Yet rather than own up, he borrowed US$30,000 to erase the losses for his clients, allowing him to impress them with the brilliance of his money management. In Madoff’s mind he had done the honourable thing – taking the hit but covering his losses. Of course, the loan was repaid from renewed investment on the back of his enhanced reputation. And the pyramid developed its all-important second layer.

That was in 1962. After the 1987 stockmarket crash he found himself in a similar position and, again, used new investor’s cash to cover the losses and, again, to maintain his strong name. The pattern was repeated again in 2001-02. Indeed, only the scale of the redemptions from the 2008 crash prevented his flawed model from surviving the latest bear market, although by then the losses were vast. Indeed, he was nearly wiped out in 2005 when he managed to raise US$92 million with just three days to spare.

According to Henriques, Madoff always saw himself as an outsider and was determined to over-compensate. He served as chairman of NASDAQ and was on the board of governors from the National Association of Securities Dealers. He even gave office space to the regulator’s legal team when they had to abandon their home after 9/11. Some have put this down to the criminal mastermind, conducting grand fraud under the noses of the authorities. But, as a High-FF (someone with a high fear of failure) I think I can spot an alternative motive. I think it reveals an insecurity – of a man desperate to be accepted as an insider in a world he admired but was not part of.

He was determined to succeed where his father failed, so he had zero tolerance for failure. Failure, to Madoff, was not feedback or a temporary setback. It was condemning, a confirmation of his irretrievable and final awfulness. And this allowed his unethical behaviour (which was to hide his failings) to build to destructive levels. In his head he knew this, of course, but – in my view – he never viewed himself as a criminal, just as an outsider.

Henriques is perplexed by Madoff despite her deep research. She finds his criminality difficult to fathom – citing an interview in jail in which he complains about feeling “burned” by investors withdrawing their money in the 1987 cash. “I was hung out to dry,” he claimed – a mentality that Henriques struggles to explain although is absolutely clear to me, as a self-declared High-FF. It is typical of the extreme High-FF to blame his victims for his misfortune (assuming they were never on his side), not dissimilar to Hitler’s bunker denunciations of the German people. These are usually the very people the megalomaniac High-FF envied and emulated: the posh, the rich, the Aryans. He has spent his life trying to be deemed worthy of this group – sometimes going to ridiculous extremes in order to do so. And, ultimately, they have been the very people that have castigated or rejected him, or simply let him down.

When I lived in New York I often passed Madoff’s Midtown building – a preposterously ugly tower in brown marble called the Lipstick Building. I didn’t know who occupied it but I used to joke to friends that – whoever it was – they were trying way too hard to make an impression. It really does stand out from the skyscraper crowd for all the wrong reasons (and is also one of two blocks in the wrong place). When I heard it was Madoff’s, I was delighted. There was a building that was desperate to be an icon – yet it inwardly knew it was ugly and never likely to be accepted as a New York landmark: not so far removed from the man himself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Religion, faith and talking to grown ups

Our youngest son was Christened recently. It was in a sweet village chapel in Suffolk where my immediate family, and those of the godparents, made up three-quarters of the attendees that Sunday. Yet the event got me thinking about faith and religion – and I ended up with a positive view, though initially more of religion than faith.

Faith is a very personal thing but my mind is just too rational – at least these days – to find room for ancient parables that read like an early form of social instruction. Rather, my positive view is of formalised religion and, indeed, its healthy influence with respect to socialisation.

Certainly, religion is probably the most successful socialising force ever invented. And this may have been my problem with it when younger. As I’ve written before, rebelliousness is often a mask for fear of failure – with the “failure” in many instances being social. There are expectations we are supposed to meet – social and material – and it is these that form the benchmarks for our lives. So if we rail against those expectations, it may be that the rebellion hides a deeply-hidden (even denied) fear of falling short.

With respect to my early academic and career mishaps, this is patently true. My rebellion masked a deeply-held belief regarding my inadequacies. Yet this is also true socially – inwardly, I felt alienated from the community around me. So I may have, again, been rejecting society before it could reject me.

And I think religion played a significant part in this, although it wasn’t until I had to engage the vicar in correspondence regarding my faith – as part of the process for persuading him that we could invade his small but reflective Sunday worship to get the youngest sorted – that I realised the role religion played.

My family were agnostics – at least they would have been if they’d examined their relationship with God, which they didn’t (agnostic agnostics perhaps). Indeed, right through my life I’ve seen religion as something other people “get” or “have” or “did”. Meanwhile, I’d never been consulted – at least not until the moment the vicar asked me for my view on faith.

On reflection I regret this inherited agnosticism – not the spiritual or faith element but the resultant absence from any form of involvement in the most obvious totem of community life. Many of my school friends attended church – mostly reluctantly. Yet I now see what it brought them: community involvement, integration, acceptance, behavioural norms and grown-up codes of conduct.

I could also add discipline here, although that makes me sound reactionary, and I’m not. But it did encourage an adult discourse, imparting skills on “how” to communicate with adults, which would surely have a beneficial influence on whether we wanted such a communication.

Meanwhile, I never learned these simple skills, which meant the village adults viewed me as sullen, stroppy, and poorly socialised. They treated me with suspicion. So I acted suspiciously. It was self-fulfilling.

It was clearly a major hole in my community life and one that was deeply felt, although one I can only now articulate. My church-going mates knew people (grown ups) and were liked by them. I was an outsider in my own village. Religion created a powerful sense of cohesion that was apparent for both those on the inside, and those on the outside. It gave those kids boundaries that I didn’t have. And, yes, that included the values of the bible as much as it meant community activity.

Instead, I went the other way – cheeking the grown-ups, leading the other kids towards petty vandalism and shoplifting (true I’m afraid – I was the 10-year old leader of the shoplifting gang). And this led me down a path of being disliked and distrusted by those adults in the village that were part of the community. Of course, this had implications for who I could hang around with. Eventually I was banned from some houses, compounding the alienation. It also had implications at school – not least because many of the teachers lived locally and were plugged into the village scene. Their attitude towards my behaviour, and my work, became noticeably harder as I moved up the years.

Unfortunately, I think society has moved more in my direction. I suspect there are a lot more Robert Kelseys in my “village” (actually a suburb of Chelmsford in Essex) than there were in my day. And society is a lot poorer for it (this isn’t a right-wing rant, by the way, more a sadness at our lost cohesion).

I told the vicar all this in our Christening preamble and he was impressed, but thought I’d missed the point. What about faith, he asked? As far as he was concerned, I was talking about religion as seen through the eyes of an amateur (and atheistic) sociologist. Where’s the spirituality?

I was lost for a reply on this one. But then I remembered going to his service a year-or-so ago. He is married to my wife’s cousin and we were staying with them for the weekend – so it was only good manners to attend his Sunday sermon. I thought it would only be an hour and we’d just have to cope with the boring rituals and distracted kids.

But I found myself deeply moved by his service. I sat there in this ancient environment (surrounded by some pretty ancient people) and absorbed his words regarding love and reflection. Work was pretty taxing at this point, I remember, and he reminded me that I had to appreciate those closest, not view them as a barrier. His message was simple, it made biblical references, and it was sandwiched between a hymn and a prayer – but it also hit the nail on the head when it came to my current stresses. I realise this isn't exactly faith - but it is surely spiritual, which maybe as close as I can get.

Sure, as a kid such words would have had less impact. We need to grow up before we can appreciate any form of reflection. But it would have been nice to have known they existed. Just maybe I’d have wasted less energy trying to reject the world around me before – in my mind – they could reject me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The darkest hour . . .

Songs transport us back to our past more efficiently than any other stimulation (though smells come a well-placed second). The power of a three-minute tune to bring back time and place with incredible clarity is extraordinary. Emotions also return, almost as strongly as the original experience – although now with the bitter-sweet icing of the retrospective view.

I thought this as I listened to Transfatty Acid by Lamb – the opening line of which is “no one said it would be easy” – a statement intended to conjure the trials of past eras. I used to listen to the song as part of a Café del Mar compilation around the turn of the millennium. Yet one occasion stands out, of me sitting alone in my small flat in North London – half-cut after several cans of Stella.

I’d never intended living there. It was an investment property while in the US. But there I sat, after being thrown out of a shared house in Camden, with a string of failed relationships behind me and the foolishness of my recent career choices starkly apparent.

To top it all, 10-years of non-smoking had recently been thrown away and I sat there puffing on Marlboro Lights, a brand that hadn’t even existed in my smoking youth. It felt that the past few years of giddy excess had finally crashed around me as I watched the fog build up under the ceiling and cracked another can – probably nodding just a little too deeply to Lamb’s song of suffering and endeavour.

Did I cry? I can’t remember. Probably – why not go all the way? In fact, I can remember a thrown glass around that time. Oh yeah, I was determined to indulge in all of misery’s thin pleasures.

Yet the reminder – due to setting the iPod to random while preparing dinner for my lovely and loving wife and wonderful (though occasionally naughty) boys in our beautiful home (there’s a point to this – don’t worry) – was, indeed, a bitter-sweet retrospective. Because I could now look back at that moment – the filling ashtray, the tired furniture, the solitude of failure – and realise that it was the darkest moment. I think it was deep winter (I’d left the Camden house in December, so my guess was that it was January, hardly a cheery month). In early February I took a friend on a nightout. She’d never been to The Cross – the famous nightclub behind King’s Cross station – so I promised to take her. We got on, we kissed, we started dating. I fell in love.

That summer was wonderful, and my small flat – in fact the top-floor of a small tower with unbroken views over Clissold Park – proved perfect for developing a grown-up relationship away from the pressures. A year later we were living together. A year later married. A year after that we were preparing for the birth of our first child.

Yet if I’m honest (and male), the downer back in that bleak January centred on my career. That winter I had to cope with the “failure” of my first book. Also, the enterprise I’d left banking in order to set up was going nowhere. Post dotcom crash, our internet “incubator” had declined to the point of being no more than a fight to save face (and savings). Our dreams looked naïve, as did my writing ambitions. So when I lit that next Marlboro Light, my thoughts would turn to what I’d thrown away. Banking in London, Moscow and New York – cutting deals with Russian oligarchs and financial whizzkids. For what?

But, again, it was the darkest hour. I’d often thought of starting a PR agency for banks but I’d never “got around” to it. My part of banking – corporate banking – was crying out for intelligent public relations from someone that fully understood the sector. But I’d always been too fearful. Stuck in the avoidance activity of “keeping a job” I’d done nothing about it. I was too concerned about the potential humiliation.

Well here I was – down and humbled. There was no fear of failure anymore because failed was the current state. There was only one way up.

Lamb’s words came back: “Did anyone tell you that the road would be straight and long?” No they didn’t. And it wasn’t. But once I realised it was a road I travelled, with a destination I wanted to get to, I worked out how to deal with the bends and occasional obstacle.

Of course, the retrospective sweetens the memory, and probably laces it with a little licence. I doubt I rose from the chair and started Moorgate Communications the next day. But, encouraged by my new girlfriend, it certainly happened that year. So thank you Lamb for such an atmospheric song. I couldn’t have got so low (and therefore so high) without you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The good, the bad and those ugly neural hijackings

There’s one opinion I assert in What’s Stopping You? that may raise a few disbelieving eyebrows. It’s the notion that – in my opinion – everybody thinks of themselves as good people. And their bad behaviour, which many will admit, can be personally justified as forced upon them by poor opportunity or prejudice, or the righting of a perceived wrong. They were made to act in such a way, they’ll state, through circumstances not of their own making.

Certainly, this is how I’ve justified my own episodes of bad behaviour. There have been occasions when my reactions have been outrageous and damaging – ill-tempered, insulting, selfish and emotionally immature. And while I apologise now to anyone who suffered my nonsense, I maintain that – underneath – I was responding to what I perceived as an attack on me. That I was acting in my own defence. I was the victim (at least in my head), not the person on the receiving end of my temper or insults.

Yet this is a position I’m going to have to defend – not my own justifications (I know what goes on my head, at least most of the time), but those of people society condemns as “bad “ or “evil”. While the self-justification of a terrorist, even of Osama Bin Laden’s notoriety, is obvious (he felt his cause was just and required such extremism), can such a defence be made of bank robbers, murderers and or even rapists? These are surely selfish crimes, driven by uncontrolled greed or lust. Difficult as it is to assume from such a moral distance, I’m convinced it can – not from a moralistic point of view but from the wholly practical standpoint that, deep down, we all aim to be good people.

I’m not stating we are not responsible for the crimes we commit – we are 100 percent responsible. I’m just offering the view that those guilty of crime, in all its forms, will most-likely defend themselves on the grounds that they were forced to do it due to actions or circumstances that were not of their choosing. And that, given the choice – and differing circumstances – they’d have chosen peace, friendship, respect and a whole host of other positive reactions.

What’s this got to do with fear of failure? A lot. One of the most difficult aspects of any recovery programme for fear of failure is focused on our dealings with other people. It is our encounters with others that produce the fear-based and usually ill-conceived responses that send High-FFs (as I call those with fear of failure) in the wrong direction. Convinced we are under attack, we react defensively – aggressively even. This is the result of what Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence calls a neural hijacking: an emotional explosion in which the limbic system of the brain proclaims an emergency, “recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda”, says Goleman. This hijacking, which is instantaneous and arrives in an emotional surge, overrides what Goleman calls the “thinking brain” – leading to instant emotional responses based on fear, whatever the reality.

Is there any way we can prevent these neural hijackings? Again, as I state in What’s Stopping You? the unfortunate answer is no. I reason that fear of failure is an innate condition that is, in fact, a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatic events in our early childhood – some of which we may not even be aware of – have led us to respond with fear when triggered, leading to those neural hijackings that, in turn, lead to those terrible responses that, on reflection, we wish we could undo.

Is there an answer? Yes. While we cannot stop the neural hijackings, the poor responses they currently induce are not inevitable. Many of us, on reflection and after the passage of enough time for the emotional fog to clear, look back on those emotional fear-based moments and realise we may have misread or over-read the signals. We may have been under attack, but – probably – we misheard them or mistook the body-language or misunderstood the intention behind their comment or action. This realisation – hopefully (though certainly not always) – dawns on us after a while and we become embarrassed by our defensive response. A response moreover, that makes us appear the aggressor – adding to our sense of injustice and potentially sending us further down the path towards vengeful thoughts and actions.

The challenge, therefore, is to be able to have that second – better, more reflective – response sooner. In fact, if only we could have that second response as an instant reaction to the original neural hijacking, we’d have prevented the neural hijacking from generating the first defensive response (the one that’s turned us into the guilty party and left us isolated, alienated and embittered).

Developing a kinder response is, therefore, one of the most vital aspects of any recovery programme for a High-FF. We must think of everyone the way we want others to think of us: as essentially good people trying to overcome their own agonies and deal with their own insecurities. We don’t need to become evangelical about this. After all, few people like having their insecurities pointed out – something almost guaranteed to produce a neural hijacking in anyone on the receiving end. We just need to be aware that – at heart – everybody thinks of themselves as a good person and that any act or utterance that contradicts this conviction is almost certainly the reaction to some perceived slight or injustice. Or, more likely, we have misconstrued their actions.

And if we adjust our thinking to see it from their point of view, we’ve immediately transformed our view of them. Look hard enough and everyone has a justifiable viewpoint that, if we can empathise with, will deflect their perceived attack on - or threat to - us. And this, after a lot of practice, can help prevent those inevitable neural hijackings from producing those, far from inevitable, awful responses.