Empowerment is a term we hear a lot about, and is usually used to refer to the way we work with others. But I want to argue that one of the most important skills in life is to be able to truly empower ourselves.
“More changes in one month of our life than during the whole of the 14th century”Brian Eno
Compared with previous generations we live in a society in which we are arguably freer, but have to handle much more uncertainty than any generation ever before. Our grandparents expected to have a job for life, there were clear social rules that guided their choices, and the church, the family and the local community remained familiar entities, providing meaning, consistency, and connectedness to their lives.
Now we hear constantly that the rate of change is increasing exponentially. In his John Peel Lecture for BBC Radio 6, music producer Brian Eno explained “More changes in one month of our life than during the whole of the 14th century.” And this rate of change comes with prices. Job stability is a thing of the past, the moral security of religion has disappeared from many people’s lives, and financial security is something we have to create for ourselves. Meanwhile the media, while reminding us that we are destroying the planet, also regularly reports increasing rates of depression, burnout and social exclusion.
We are thrown back on our devices. If we want our lives to have meaning, connectedness and prosperity we have to find it ourselves. Never before has our ability to handle the challenges and uncertainties of life been so important. And for many people it appears that looking out for our own security is no longer enough. A lot of us not only want to save ourselves, but also have the audacity to hope to make the world a better place.
Never before has our ability to handle the challenges and uncertainties of life been so important
Leaving aside any world-changing ambitions, how can we even begin to keep it together and support our kids to do the same in this highly demanding society of ours? Here are my 5 principles, put together after 50 years of living and thousands of intimate conversations with leaders, academics and doers from all walks of life looking for a more effective and fulfilling way to handle life, love and work:
1. Practise loving yourself
So many of us are so used to judging themselves and their actions negatively that we no longer notice it. But at a micro level we are criticising ourselves several times an hour, often several times a second. This relentless self-critique feeds a sense of dissatisfaction or self doubt which gradually uses up our battery until we find ourselves running on empty. Then we have to put even more pressure on ourselves to keep going.
Loving yourself is about looking at yourself with the same compassion, admiration, acceptance and humour as your other loved ones. It means acknowledging yourself for your efforts and achievements, caring for yourself when you need some tender loving care, and being kind to yourself even when you are clumsy or make mistakes. That takes practice, because most of us have spent our lives doing the opposite.
2. Get your purpose clear
In his bestseller “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck” blogger Mark Manson spells it out loud and clear: Life is an unending series of problems, and until we acknowledge that we will continue to be disappointed in ourselves and in life.
The things that we think will bring us happiness, like more money, more popularity, more sex and tropical beaches don’t make us happy in the long run because we tire of them. Meanwhile all of us know people who throw themselves heart and soul into a demanding activity, whether it’s long distance running, knitting or mending vintage cars, and who get so absorbed by handling those challenges that it gives them great satisfaction.
Forget trying to be happy. If you want lasting contentment choose problems you want to tackle. Like the problem of going on a world trip (which entails a lot of hassle, right?), having a family (even more hassle!), or studying to become an environmental scientist (which costs time and money), and engage with those problems.
The thing is, if we don’t choose and focus on the problems we WANT to focus on, we get lost and exhausted by handling problems other people think we should be handling. Or we fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people. And we will never win.
If you want to find a life partner and you don’t have one yet, work on that by going to places where you will meet single people and set up dates. By having clear what our purpose is we can also be clear about what we are NOT going to do, and be OK with it.
3. Become master over your thoughts, not vice versa
It may sound strange, but in order to empower yourself more you need to believe your thoughts less. Deciding to train yourself to be sceptical about your own thinking is one of the most empowering steps you can ever take. Why? Because, with all due respect, a lot of your thoughts are disgustingly manipulative.
Not all of them of course. But some of them. And if you can’t tell the difference your thinking will make your life extremely difficult at times. It will tell you you are unable to do things you have never tried, it will tell you stories about situations that aren’t true, it will convince you people are against you when they are not, and it can lead you to take decisions that are destructive and dangerous.
You may have known this for a long time. You may have noticed that you are able to work yourself up into a fury about something and that that only made things worse. If you are a worrier, you will have noticed that you can make yourself very anxious even to the point that you create physical discomfort…and that your thoughts are making it worse.
Your thinking may persuade you to avoid taking action when initiative and daring are what’s needed. It will get you into conflicts, depressions, boredom, cynicism, regret, you name it.
You can’t switch your thinking off. There are useful practices you can do – like focussing on your breath or a physical activity – to help you dim your thoughts and connect with the moment, but your thinking will always return. So it’s about learning to handle your own thinking so that it works for you rather than against you.
You want to develop a habit of rigorously checking your thoughts to see whether they are truthful and supportive, or manipulative and misleading.
4. Make things do-able
My uncle Tim was a manager for Marks and Spencer and is famous in our family for regularly saying “Keep It Simple Stupid,” and, although we laughed at the time, I am generally a great believer in this approach.
If we are honest all of us have projects we intend to get done but that don’t happen. We didn’t have time, or we forgot, or things just don’t run as planned. Or we found something else we were more interested it.
The commonest reason for not getting things done is that we get carried away thinking and don’t make things simple enough. We get distracted, or we make things overly complicated or intellectual. And while we may feel a lot is happening, actually very little has happened in the real world.
Remember, any impact you want to have with your project will only happen when real people experience and respond to it. You want to turn your plans into simple, concrete actions. The kind of actions that you know exactly what to do to. Like phone a particular person, read a particular book or article, cook a particular dish.
While planning is important, it is a good rule of thumb to make your planning phase short and snappy and to move on to doing as soon as possible. Because that’s when you start to see how your ideas stand up in real life.
Get real and get out there as soon as possible. Train yourself to ask the following the question at the end of every thinking session..”What is my next action?”
5. Develop a learner’s mind
Some time in the last 12 months you were most probably disappointed at least once. Something you were hoping for didn’t turn out the way you expected. And of course it didn’t feel good or at all empowering. Life always has surprises in store for us, and when we expect it to fit to the plan we get disappointed.
But if we remain conscious of the fact that life can change its plan any moment, it has a particular effect on us, by keeping our thinking free of any sense of entitlement or complacency. It reminds us that life is an adventure that will continue to challenge our mental fitness every step of the way.
In the 7 Principles of Highly Effective people Stephen Covey talks about the importance of on-going learning, and he calls it sharpening the saw. He writes that many people have “memories of some unusual creative experiences, perhaps in athletics, where they were involved in a real team spirit for a period of time. Or perhaps they were in an emergency situation where people cooperated to an unusually high degree.“
He describes that for many people events like this seem out of character with life, even miraculous. But this is not so. The exceptional teamwork or brilliance present in moments like these can be produced regularly, consistently. But it requires enormous openness and a spirit of adventure. And this is not a character trait. This is one of the many reasons trainees come to the trainings I and my colleagues give.
Having a learners mind means continuing to be curious, wanting to discover new information and develop new understanding and be surprised by new insights. It means putting ourselves in ambiguous or unfamiliar situations and learning from both our mistakes and from what went well.