Wednesday, 24 July 2013

When 'thank you' seem to be the hardest words...

I once read that ‘thank you’ is a perfectly acceptable response to most compliments.  I try to follow the rule myself, though it’s hard as someone who is naturally inclined towards self-deprecation.

We all know how irritating it can be when someone constantly refuses to accept our compliments: the girl who won’t accept someone thinks she’s beautiful; the guy who refuses to let us congratulate him on playing guitar well.  Yet, I’ve never really thought about why it’s irritating, until now…

People sometimes compliment my writing, and it always surprises me.  It’s not that I don’t believe I’m any good, it’s more that I don’t expect other people to agree with me (or to even read my stuff!)  When someone tells me I write well, I’m therefore tempted to tell them I’m not really that good.

But that’s quite disrespectful to the other person.  I’d basically be saying I know better than them, which is odd, given my self-deprecating leanings.  Or I’d be calling them a liar, or a sycophant, believing they’re telling me what I want to hear, not what they really think. (Though I would probably dress it up in my mind as ‘they’re just being polite.’)

 So, instead, I pause for a second, allowing my brain to process the fact this person may actually like what I write, and then I thank them. 

Even if they’re wrong, and my writing is terrible, they are still entitled to their opinion and I am grateful it’s a positive one.

Next time someone pays you a compliment, accept it graciously.  They might just be telling the truth.

(Liz Mosley, if you’re reading this, thank you!  Your compliment last weekend inspired this post.)

Monday, 3 June 2013

What it really means to 'do your best'.

100% can be a fluid concept.
‘Do your best’ is a common piece of encouragement, and it’s a good one: no-one can ask any more of you than your ‘best’.

But sometimes we think we could’ve done better.  Maybe an article we’ve written isn’t as good as a previous one, or we don’t perform as well as we’d hoped in an interview, or perhaps we don’t achieve the grade we wanted in an exam.

We believe we haven’t done our best.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.  There are so many factors influencing our performance: we could be ill at the time (mentally or physically), or we could have other demands on our time.  Perhaps the cellar flooded or the car broke down, and we lost time sorting it out, or were flustered when we got to the venue.  It doesn’t even have to be something so dramatic: we could’ve needed to get the house in order, or have been making an effort to keep friendships and relationships going.

I’d argue, unless we were sat around eating chips and playing on the Xbox for 3 weeks beforehand, we still did our ‘best’.  

Doing our best doesn’t necessarily mean achieving the maximum possible result we could under perfect circumstances.  Circumstances are rarely perfect, therefore the maximum possible result is rarely ‘perfection’. 

We only get one life, and only one opportunity to do any one thing.  The way things work out is the only way they could – ‘if onlys’ don’t exist.

So don’t give yourself a hard time if you don’t quite meet your own high standards every time you do something.  The chances are you have done your best with the circumstances or resources available to you.

Monday, 29 April 2013

There is always more going on than you could possibly imagine.

I read somewhere this week that electrons do not move in a regular orbit around a nucleus as I'd always thought. (Yet more proof that GCSE Physics is a complete waste of time.) Rather, they move from one place to another without actually travelling the distance in between.

That's right, they teleport. And we thought it wasn't possible.

It wasn't a science text book that told me this, so I can't vouch for its validity (I am now reading a book on quantum mechanics in an effort to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge), but even so, it's an interesting thought.

I realise by beginning my post with this information, I've risked losing a number of readers who don't like science (or those who do, and therefore will scoff at my primitive understanding of quantum mechanics) but, it's important because it shows there is always more going on than we could possibly imagine.

I sat in a classical concert last week and considered the vibrations of the air, carrying the sound to my ears, keeping the exact pitch and rhythm the musicians intended. I felt a little dizzy, in fact, as I tried to decide whether air was a better conductor of sound than the strings themselves.

The music was glorious but, even then, there was still so much more going on.

Often we might feel despondent: working a mundane job, or checking sales figures that don't quite match what we'd hoped, or looking at a room full of people at a wedding and believing they're all happy and we're the only ones who aren't.

But, I guarantee, there is more going on than you think. Those people might be putting off going home to an abusive partner, or one of the sales we have made could have gone to a young man who may have committed suicide if it wasn't for your inspirational book. And that job could be providing you with just the experience you need for your perfect job in five years time.

And, even if none of that is true, there are billions of electrons in your body, jumping around, teleporting back and forth (depending on whether they're being observed, apparently), without which you could not 'be'.

So don't despair, you are a marvel. And you never know what might be going on behind the scenes.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Finding good role models: thoughts from a train following a best friend's wedding.

I had the privilege of witnessing one of my longest-serving, and best, friends get married yesterday. I sat in the reception and listened to various people comment on the excellent qualities of my friend, knowing that it was an accurate representation of this man I've known for my whole life.

As I sat there I couldn't help wondering what people might say about me should I get married again. And I felt a sense of shame: I doubt my references would be as glowing. At least, not if they were to be accurate.

'When I look at myself I don't see the man I wanted to be; somewhere down the line I slipped off track. One step up and two steps back.' - Bruce Springsteen, 'One Step Up'

But the man I saw yesterday, my friend, is still very much in my life, and we both expressed a strong desire to try and recapture some of the closeness that, as so often seems to happen as life goes on, has somehow been lost, just through the passage of time and that all-powerful force: 'stuff'.

In my friend I see a true 'man', and an excellent role model. Someone who I want to emulate, not necessarily in outward accomplishments or actions, but in strength of character, in loyalty of friendship, and in a personification of love. And I don't apologise for sounding overly sentimental.

Congratulations, mate. May your marriage be life-long and full of joy. I'm glad I have the opportunity to continue to be friends with, and learn from, you.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Climbing a mountain.

Climbing a mountain is tough.
Don't be too hard on yourself if it takes a while.

Writing a novel, for me, sometimes feels like the ultimate challenge: it’s climbing Everest; it’s running a marathon; it’s the Iron Man Triathlon. 

It’s a ‘one man against the elements’ kind of thing.  When I’m at my computer, there’s nothing but my own skill and determination to fight on through, to carry on, to make it to the end.  And it’s tough, make no mistake: novels are long, and the task needs due respect and consideration if you’re going to make it.

You wouldn’t turn up at the start line for the London Marathon with no preparation, or expect to finish it in half an hour.  If you go with that mentality, it will punish you. 

Nanowrimo annoys me for this reason: to sell the idea that someone can produce a piece of work worth anything in a month is deceitful, at best.  Besides, the 50,000 words required by Nanowrimo is not novel-length, by my reckoning.  (For example, The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time (Haddon, 2003) weighs in at 71,000 words, and that’s not all that long.)

Although, I admit, perhaps it’s people actually sitting down and finishing something in a month that annoys me, whilst I’ve been working on the same project for close to three years.

I work in Higher Education these days, with students producing theses of 80,000 words.  That’s more like it.  They have 3-4 years to produce this work, with a lot of support from supervisors and fellow students.  Writers like me, on the other hand, are producing that amount of work alone. 

Be proud of being a novel writer, even if you never get anything published.  Not every marathon runner gets a medal, but those who finish achieve something most only dream of.

Keep writing.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Stress relief: is there a 'quick fix'?

Sometimes this may be
your best option...
(in moderation, of course.)
I suffer with stress at the moment – everyone does sometimes.  I also suffer with Depression, and I’ve had my fair share of heart-breaks, loneliness and anxiety.

Recently, I heard somebody recommending ‘Rescue Remedies’ as a cure for stress.  Later that same week, I saw a stand in Boots pharmacy, stocking different varieties of the product.  Both of these events made me angry.

A few years ago, a friend of mine took part in the 10:23 campaign.  A prominent employee of Boots had openly admitted there was no evidence that homeopathic treatments were effective and yet, Boots, a trusted pharmacy, continued to sell them.  (If you’re unsure what homeopathy is, the 10:23 page has a good overview.)

The 10:23 campaign aimed to prove the fallacy of homeopathy through organising a mass overdose of homeopathic products.   The event proved the point: my friend took 30 times the recommended dose, and suffered no effects, positive or negative.

‘Rescue Remedies’ are a form of homeopathy known as ‘Bach Flower Remedies’.  If you read the label, it clearly states that the ‘medicine’ is a severe dilution of the ‘active ingredient’.   In reality, all that is left in the bottle is brandy.  (I’ll give them credit there: at least it’s not just water, as in many cases.  And I suppose a stiff-drink can sometimes help stress.)

These products are a placebo.  Nothing more. 

The reason they make me angry is because people believe they work, and so part with their cash for them (and they’re not cheap!), making someone very rich for ... nothing. 

A placebo may work – yes.  The brain is remarkable and the psychological impact of taking something you believe to work cannot be underestimated.  But many of the illnesses – such as Depression, for example – supposedly helped by homeopathy have genuine medical treatments, which are both effective and offer the same ‘placebo’ benefit of a...err...placebo.  And, the more money that is spent on ‘researching’, producing and stocking the placebos, the less there is for developing real treatments.

I wish there was a miracle cure for loneliness, anxiety, stress or the ‘Monday morning blues’ (seriously, it’s on their website!).  But there isn’t. 

There are, however, products that can genuinely assist with well-being – and I’m not just talking about prescription drugs.  For example, did you know black tea, bananas and omega 3 have all been linked with reducing stress?  (One of those three links contains several other stress-relieving foods!)

Please stop wasting your money on products such as Rescue Remedies.  If you’re taking anything branded as an ‘alternative medicine’, at least find out what it is and how it’s made first.

As Tim Minchin says in his song, Storm: ‘Do you know what they call "alternative medicine" that's been proved to work? ...


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The secret to doing everything you ever wanted to do...

Many things can deflect us from getting
where we want to be.

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook recently about a method of getting up early in the morning by not thinking about it, but just doing it.  The article is here

I've been mulling it over and started thinking that most things are only difficult to do when we stop to consider the alternatives.  Like staying in bed rather than getting up, or watching a movie, rather than working on that creative project.

The moment we stop to think about it, we can come up with a dozen other things we could do, most of which might be easier or preferable to the thing we really should do.

But, if we stop even allowing ourselves to think of alternatives and just do the thing we are meant to do, then we’re probably more likely to get it done.  Which really goes without saying.

I’m re-reading a book at the moment: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.  He talks a lot about Resistance and the different guises it takes to prevent us from doing the thing we ought to be doing.  He says that, as a result of giving in to ‘Resistance’, we end up feeling 'like hell': deep down ,we know we’re not doing what we’re born to do, and we become restless, seeking many ways of distracting ourselves: TV; music; games; sex.

But Pressfield, with great insight, writes: ‘We will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.’ (Pressfield, 2002, The War of Art.)

If we want to write a novel, there is no five-point quick fix method.  The only way is to write a novel.

If we want to get up early and go for a run, hitting snooze and staying bed won’t help.  The only way is to get up and go for a run.

The secret, then, to doing anything and everything we want to do do it.

I’m trying to learn (note the tentative nature of this statement!) to block out the alternatives to ‘doing the work’; they will never serve to assist me with the projects I so desperately want to complete.

Don’t think, do. 

It sounds like something Yoda would say.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

How do you have fun?

Life can sometimes be work, work, work.
Fun doesn’t seem to feature in my life much.  I don’t really have time/money.

And I’m not sure this is a good thing.

I think having fun is important, I just find it hard.  When I use time on something meaningless, such as Football Manager, I consider it time wasted and feel guilty: I should have been writing.

The truth is, I’ve never really known what I enjoy.  My mother used to ask me: ‘Is there anything you do like?!’ after I had declared I didn’t like yet another activity: playing football, swimming, and youth groups, to name but a few.

Of course, there are things I do in my spare time: reading, playing music, or watching films, for example.  But I question whether I actually ‘enjoy’ them: are they fun?  Or do I do them to pass the time while I’m on the tram, or eating, or too tired lazy to write?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned what I want to do: writing.  And I’ve found I can write and perform songs as a side-line.  But I don’t do them for fun.  In fact, when I sit down to write, it feels like far harder work than the time I sit at my desk 9-5. 

And having sat at said desk all day/week, which is itself particularly unenjoyable, it’s then difficult to  do the hard writing, even though I ‘want’ to do it.

In fact, it leads to great frustration: knowing I could do my writing, if only I didn’t first have to tire myself out in a day job in order to pay the bills etc.

Apologies.  I don’t mean to whine.

I think we all need time for relaxation, and fun.   If you’re like me, I recommend trying to allow yourself to have fun from time to time.  And maybe I’ll make it a belated New Year’s Resolution.

I could even schedule it in, and then it might feel like a work activity...

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Making the most of the year to come.

‘A goal without a plan is just a wish.’
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer.

I love the start of a new year: it's a good chance to look back, take stock, and look to what we want the next 12 months to bring.  While I understand some people saying: ‘It’s just another day, you can make a fresh start anytime,’ I still think it’s a particularly easy time to do it.

For a few years I’ve promised I would finish my novel, yet still it goes on.

This year, I’m making plans: I’ve already written a workable schedule for my novel, and also for my non-fiction project.  And, I’m trimming out things I can live without, or distract me from my ambition.

I’ve spent much time in my life on things I’m not going to be proud of on my death-bed: Football Manager; late-morning lie-ins; re-watching movies I’ve seen time and again.  I’m not saying I will cut these out entirely, but they need to be in their place, not in place of my life’s goals.

Don Miller wrote recently about why New Year’s Resolutions often end in disappointment, and how to make ones that will stick.  You can read his blog-post here.  Basically, it’s about setting an exciting challenge, rather than a woolly dream, and then making a plan to achieve it.

Whatever you want to do in your life – whether it’s write a novel, record an album, design a fashion range, or settle down in a nice home – put the wheels in motion today, or at least start laying the tracks.  Make a plan; order an instrument; create space for a design-table; budget your finances and start saving.

Every year that goes by without achieving our aims is another year wasted. 

Life is finite. 

There’s no time to lose.