Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Are you in the right job ?

In the movie Up in The Air, the character of George Clooney is a third party professional hired to tell people they are being let go because of company downsizing. Talking to a bitter character played by JK Simmons, Clooney gently reminds the terminated employee that this guy’s original dream was to run his own restaurant beforesuch dream was killed by an easy employment that got in the way.

I have many friends who were “forced” into a job because it was the only one available. Once there, they loved the comfort zone. Oftentimes it’s hard to give up the money especially if we’re supporting a family.

But there’s a thing called regret.

Songwriter Bronnie Ware used to work in the ward for the terminally ill. In many conversations with dying patients, she learned that the biggest regret of people is that they were not able to live the life they had wanted.

In the book The Miracle Morning, bestselling author Hal Elrod mentioned a finding by the Social Security Administration ( United States ) that after working for 40 years, 95% of people are NOT living the life they had wanted for themselves.

I know one way it can happen.

After graduating from college, my cousin got me employed as a personnel clerk in a factory making steel barrels and buckets. I was only twenty but the head of personnel already said that I could be his successor. It could have been an easy climb. My officemates were the nicest people in the world. But I knew it wasn’t the one for me.

As far back as I could remember, I was sure that it was writing and drawing that made me happy. So, on lunch breaks, I walked under the sweltering heat of the sun, feeling my rubber soles burn as I searched for every ad agency in the phonebook. I knew that my future was somewhere in those tall towers in the distant Makati horizon. At least 20 of them rejected me but I didn’t give up because I was looking for the train stop for the journey of my life.

Do you already know what you want to do for the next part of your life?

Sir Ken Robinson is an international advisor on education and is probably the most viewed speaker on TED talks. In the book The Element, Dr. Robinson wrote the element is “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.” He also said that “when we are in our element, we feel we are doing what we are meant to be doing and who we were meant to be.”

To know our element, let’s answer the question Dr. Robinson wants us to ask ourselves: “if left to my own devices –if I didn’t have to worry about making a living or what others thought of me –what am I most drawn to doing ?”

Getting paid for doing what we love is a formula for happiness. But how much do we want to get paid ?

A higher-paying job is not necessarily a better job because a sense of fulfilment is greater than money. But if the amount of money we earn is not enough to pay for rent and food, worry will keep us from getting focused. The feeling of being underpaid will eventually take a toll on our self-esteem, too.

In the book Born For This, writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau suggests we find ourselves a job that offers a combination of “joy, money and flow.” Joy is what we get when we do what we love to do. Money is what enables us to keep doing our job. Flow is about being “in the zone” that we almost forget the passage of time as we do our best for the work.

Then again, many people don’t even know what gives them joy.

If we’re young, we can experiment. We can try different jobs until we say “this is the one I’d like to grow old with.” I guess it’s so much like looking for Mr. or Ms. Right.

Mr. Guillebeau’s another advice is for us to build our own side business while we keep our day job. For example, I know so many employees who do events planning or magazine writing or t-shirt printing during the weekends. I think this is so much easier to do now  that the social media can be a free self-promotion tool. When the side business proves to give us more happiness and the kind of money we want, then it will be time to choose.

In the movie Up In The Air, some of the people they fired were already approaching 60. They were told that it is never too late to “build an empire or to change the world.”
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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Life-changing discovery : many executives miss out on important things


Tess is my admin officer who is actually a creative person at heart. I encouraged her to develop her writing skills during the weekend. But she admitted that she devotes the free days to household chores.

So, I invited her to imagine a day five years from now. I envisioned she wouldn’t congratulate herself for having washed 5,000 clothes or having mowed the lawn 300 times. I suggested that there might be some work she can delegate to someone she can pay so that she can invest her time in her hidden passion. The money you spend you can recover, but time that has passed is gone forever.

I have nothing against showing love by doing chores and errands. But we also don’t want to grow old regretting all the missed opportunities.

My favorite exercise from leadership guru Stephen Covey is the one about time management. The seat work asks us to divide the things that we do into four quadrants : Q1 :urgent and important, Q2: important but not urgent, Q3. urgent but not important, Q4: not urgent and not important.*

Many people spend most of their time in Q1, urgent and important ,and in Q4, not urgent and not important. Examples of things both urgent and important are paying the bills, meeting clients' deadlines, doing what the boss asked us to do and doing household chores.

Watching tv, recreation and keeping social connections are important. But too much media and internet, excessive video gaming and too many nights going out will fall in Q4, not urgent and not important.

I tried this exercise among peers last week. My friends discovered they miss out a lot on things that are not urgent but are very important. What are these ?

Examples are quality time with the children, date with the spouse or partner, visiting or calling their parents, routine medical check-ups, re-connecting with relatives or special friends, cultivating other talents and skills, organizing family photos, reading a book, travelling, exercising, meditative prayer, serving the community or the church, among others. We also realized many of us don’t even find time to rest because we have been programmed to think that rest is unproductive.

We fail to give time to these things because they don’t have a deadline. We always tell ourselves “ I will do it one day soon” but we can all agree that they always get pushed back by things that have a deadline. One day we will realize that 20 years have passed and there are many things we can no longer bring back!

One person in our group work recognized the fact that some important things we neglect may suddenly become urgent, costly and life-threatening. For example, missed medical check-ups may make us develop a serious illness. Overlooking house maintenance may cause a fire.

In a Covey seminar, the instructor advised us to “protect our time like we protect our money.” This means putting important things first on the planner and asking people to respect our calendar. Our secretary should be our fiercest partner in defending the logbook !

Daniel Gilbert is a psychology professor at Harvard. In the book Stumbling on Happiness, he noted that people’s regrets are always of things we didn’t  have the time, the chance or the courage to do. Yet many of us spend a lot of our time on things we only need to do but don’t really want to.We commonly think that failures have been a waste of time. But in Gilbert’s research, people are less sorry for actions that turned out to be "mistakes" but  taught them some lesson.

In the book The Happiness Equation, bestselling author Neil Pasricha wrote that one of the secrets of happiness is doing things because we love them, not because of external rewards or what other people think. He proposed the Saturday morning test. He said that what we really love are those that we wish to be doing in the weekend. Think of things that you give you joy and a sense of purpose, so you don’t think he suggests spending the whole day in bed.

Pasricha observed that people normally procrastinate. If we are given two weeks to accomplish a task, we wait for two weeks before completing the work. So, he recommends setting shorter, self-imposed timelines on the urgent things. For example, if we were given two weeks, let’s target to finish in 1 week. That’s how we can create free space for our own interests.

David Allen is a professional consultant on time management. In the book Making it All Work, he advises that the first thing in time management is having a clear picture of our desired future.  With this, we can tell what things will get us there and which ones will bring us too far away.He also counsels us to stand firm on our personal values. It’s really our values that make us feel good about ourselves. There is no point in achieving our goals if we lose our values in the process.

This Holy Week break may be a good time to catch up on our bucket list. Then again, the important things need not wait for those once-a-year opportunities!

(*The website MindTools calls this the Eisenhower Principle based on how the former president used to organize his workload. 

 Read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey and First Things First by Stephen Covey and A. Roger Merrill. )
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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Is positive thinking really a delusional thing ?


I am almost sure that your Facebook feed is filled with messages and memes reminding you to feel good today because “nothing is impossible,” and “you will see it when you believe it” because you just have to “name it and claim it.”

Positivity messages have become so widespread. We get it from preachers, New Age writers, motivational speakers,  coaches, CEOs, HR experts, psychologists and doctors in a deluge of books, articles, DVDs and YouTube videos.

But some authors and experts are not impressed.

Award-winning American author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote this book Bright-Sided : How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. In the book she laments that both spiritual and secular positivity gurus have made Americans believe that “if you expect things to get better, they will.”

Can the mind really attract money ?

She is not pleased that the book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne was a runaway bestseller when Byrne’s claims on the Law of Attraction are based on wrong interpretations of science. Ehrenreich is not convinced that people can attract to themselves money, things or love just by wishing it to happen.

Ms. Ehrenreich noted that American companies paid positivity coaches to make employees focus on the possible rewards instead of bemoaning their low salaries.
She reported that coaches were also used to make laid-off employees look forward to “new opportunities” instead of resenting their former employers.

The “megachurches” were also mentioned by Ehrenreich as institutions that have become like business corporations. She observed that these churches preaching the “Positivity Gospel” have designed their services and sermons to appeal to the needs of “customers” -those churchgoers who choose to be reminded of God’s generosity instead of the punishment for sin. She cited pastor Joel Osteen as among those who regularly advised their flock to “visualize” God prospering their lives.

Can the mind cure cancer ?

When Ehrenreich was being treated for breast cancer, she was unpleasantly overwhelmed by many “think positive” messages along with pink ribbons, pink bears, pink mugs and other paraphernalia meant to make her “feel good.” She felt like a deviant in this community of patients and caregivers. They tried to think happy thoughts of healing when she actually wanted to express anger because, among other reasons, she believed that she got her cancer from a previous medical error.

Ehrenreich researched that the death rate in breast cancer is only the same among the positive thinkers and those who had more gloomy thoughts. She also questioned the methodology or premise of some studies connecting positivity to healing.

She thinks it is unfair that positivity champions make people think they didn’t get healed or didn’t become rich because of their own fault –they did not have enough faith or they attracted bad luck to themselves.

She decries the fact that many positivists deny the existence of real obstacles and real dangers, labelling them as mere “excuses” to one’s success. She preferred that patients were made more alert and aware instead of fully trusting in an imagined guarantee of cure.

Has positivity changed lives ?

Despite the massive positivity hype, Ehrenreich had reasons to believe that it didn’t make America a better and happier place. She cited the fact that anti-depressants are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the US. She also reported that the rich got richer while the “share of income going to the bottom 80 percent fell by 7 percentage points” from 1979 to 2007. As it turns out, she observed, the promise of abundance was mostly empty for the “believers” while the gurus flew on their own jets.

She thinks that the sub-prime crisis would not have happened if people were more frugal instead of being too confident in using their credit cards and taking out loans.

Other books that examine the limitations of positive thinking are The Antidote by Oliver Burke, Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabrielle Oettingen, and The Power of Negative Thinking by Bob Knight,  among others.  

What’s better than positive thinking ?

Ehrenreich clarifies that she doesn’t propose negative thinking as an alternative because “it can be just as delusional as the positive one.” She does not agree to “depressed people” projecting “their misery into the world, imagining worst outcomes from every endeavor…”

Instead, she suggests “vigilant realism” or “defensive pessimism,” a term she borrowed from psychologist Julie Norem. It is mostly critical thinking in place of positive thinking. She advises that if we stop looking at things as all-rosy, we will entertain a contrarian point of view no matter how discomforting because “the more information we can gather the better off we are.”

“The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only be shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.”

My own belief on belief

I can agree with Ehrenreich that preachers and gurus have achieved profitable prosperity by telling us what we want to hear.

My scientific mind prevents me from believing that the universe is a genie that grants the most ridiculous wishes. I am more ready to accept what other positivity authors have suggested : you cannot expect money to come to you unless you have created anything of value.

When I pray,  I don’t say “God, send a million to me.” Instead, I thank him for giving me talents that allow me to create things that people pay for. But for now, I keep an open mind. After all, God and the universe are like oceans that cannot fit into our bucket-sized mind. Even Einstein knew only very, very little about them.

Why think positive when humans seek negativity ?

Positive thinking may not solve our problems like a miracle. But I believe it is useful. Our biology needs it.

Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, wrote the book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns by Changing Your Brain Chemistry.  She pointed out that the mammal brain, our brain, is wired to constantly scan the environment for threats. That’s a throwback to the caveman era when someone could be killed by a wild animal, falling rocks or a raging river any time. When we feel happy, positive brain chemicals metabolize quickly and we go back to negative mode. 

Self-preservation was the reason why our negative feelings of fear, anxiety, anger were more intense than positive ones. Those instincts are still with us in these modern times. Our negativity bias, Dr. Breuning asserts, makes us overlook the many good things around us. We deprive ourselves the experience of having a good feeling.

So, I think Ehrenreich shouldn’t worry that positive thinking will make humans deny the existence of threats and unpleasant things. We are naturally conscious of these realities. For example, even though we received praises from a hundred people, one nasty comment will be enough to ruin our day!

I think that a few workshops on positive thinking will enhance our life but not entirely erase our mammal threat-seeking instincts ingrained over many centuries.

Psychologist Rick Hanson, in Hardwiring Happiness, reported that the negativity bias has all of us stressed out during the day. That’s why road rage can be easily provoked. Hanson advised that we should ease the stress by being grateful for happy things that happened during the day.

In the book The Art of Happiness, psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler shared that the Dalai Lama’s counsel is for us to replace negative feelings with positive ones. If such Buddhist teaching preceded the “positivity fad” by many centuries, maybe optimism is truly a human need.

I think positivity churches are growing because people are already so frazzled during the whole week, they don’t want to be reprimanded on Sunday. I think the positivity mania spread in the corporate world because work is so stressful, we can’t tolerate more negativity by officemates. Seeking positivity as a relief is a natural human need in these stressful, unpredictable times.

Overcoming Fear and Worry

Optimism may not eliminate risks but it can erase our fears and make us enjoy life more. For example, I used to dread flights. Now, I visualize the exciting destinations instead of having morbid thoughts. I trust that no matter how optimistic the pilots and the mechanics are, they will still check anything that may go wrong.

We cannot predict events. Being pessimistic can be bad for our health. When we worry, the brain prioritizes supplying resources to the body parts used in fighting. They leave very little for the immune system and the repair of organs.

That’s why Jesus asked “Can any of you, by worrying, add a single moment to your life span?“ Likewise, the Buddhist teaching on mindfulness advises against worrying about the future.

Hope, Healing and Survival

In 1914, twenty-eight sailors were marooned  in ice, darkness and hunger for almost two years. Just a few years ago, thirty-three miners were trapped in a mining cave in Chile, hundreds of meters underground for 69 days with almost no food and water. In both cases, all men survived.  If they didn’t think positive in those obviously hopeless situations, they would have killed one another or gone insane.

Eyewitnesses said that Sir Ernest Shackleton, the 1914 expedition leader, did many things to keep his crew distracted by fun, happy thoughts and the hope that they will get through.

There is false hope and true hope as admitted by Dr. Jerome Groopman in his book The Anatomy of Hope. He does not believe in giving patients false hopes. He also wouldn’t say with certainty that hope is enough for recovery. But he said that belief in the possibility of a cure encourages patients to undergo painful procedures and endure many side effects. I would count this as a case for positive thinking.

Dr. Groopman also reported about successful cases in which the placebo effect actually worked. A result of positive expectations.

In the book The Faith Factor, Dr. Dale A. Matthews wrote that “over 300 clinical studies demonstrate one simple fact : faith is good medicine.”

My own months-long battle with insomnia was on its way to depression and claustrophobia.  I found the cure in positive thinking advised by both religious people and medical practitioners. ( But the details will be for another article. )

Bouncing back

For me, one of the most obvious advantages of positivity is its ability to help us rise from defeat or sadness.

I will not impose my cheerfulness on people who are grieving. I will not underestimate their pain. I will not ask them to look at the bright side if they wish to express anger. But when they are ready to start again, I hope that they will feel optimistic that life can still be great. Finding new zest for life is the common story by people who go from trial to triumph.

I don’t blame motivation coaches for pushing people, those who have failed and those who have been laid off, to the limits of their potential. Some may not become as great as how they visualize themselves to be, but they may reach higher levels of competence.

Success may not be for all. Just like not anyone who goes to college becomes an accomplished professional. Some will fail. But I think that no human being must be deprived of the encouragement to dream and to rise from failure.

We need positivity to mend our broken spirits and to embolden our anxious hearts.

Dr. Breuning wrote that “ Our quality of life rests on inventions made by people who were often disappointed during their lives…But they kept taking steps anyway. If humans only did things that got short-run rewards, we would have worms in our intestines and war with our neighbors and die by age thirty. Instead, we have comfortable lives because people who came before us went beyond disappointment.”

Have a great day ! Just being optimistic.
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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Why leaders should tell stories

Former ABS-CBN CEO Charo Santos-Concio talking with culinary school scholars.
Photo by Johnny Delos Santos

Every year, the members of Couples for Christ gather in a big conference. We listen to the enlightening talks of our elders. But what we really remember and talk about weeks, months and years later are the stories told by the speakers and the “sharers.”

The human brain is wired to remember stories. Maybe that’s because as early as childhood, we are taught values through the story of the turtle and the rabbit, David and Goliath, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, etc.

Lisa Cron is a writer, literary consultant and an instructor in UCLA. In the book Wired for Story, she said that stories are appealing  because they release the brain chemical dopamine which cause our concentration and interest to heighten.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, wrote in the book Meet Your Happy Chemicals that dopamine flow happens whenever we are expecting a reward.

Such expectation increases as the story goes through its arc of beginning-middle-end or problem-struggle-triumph.  

Paul Smith, a corporate trainer, wrote the book Lead with Story. In that bestseller, he cited pyschologist Jerome Bruner who asserted that if facts are presented in story form, we are 20 times more likely to remember them. 

Smith also suggested the use of stories in communicating within the organization. For example, if you want to promote the value of putting customers first, true accounts of how employees did it will be more indelible and more influential than mottos or hollow promises.

Where I work, we learn more about our company’s values through the stories about our former chairman Eugenio Lopez, Jr. who passed away in the mid 1990s. The “legends” say he used to fall in line in the workmen’s cafeteria and one time, he didn’t introduce himself as the company owner when the security guard refused him entry to the compound.

In the bestseller Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath* also advised that powerful stories are more potent than any slogan. With the good lessons they impart, stories are great at inspiring people into action.

Jesus Christ is known for his parables. Abraham Lincoln also pitched his principles to the people around him by way of true stories and anecdotes.

Stories may be sad or glad, reassuring or terrifying. In any case, stories always evoke emotions. Many clinical studies have revealed that man has difficulty making rational decisions without the help of emotions.

If you want to be an effective leader, be a good storyteller.

(* Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior at Standford University and  Dan Heath is founder of publishing company Thinkwell. )

Tip of the week :

Use the app Blinkist to read summaries of hundreds of books and to know what books are good to buy. Highly recommended !

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Why a happy childhood is more important than we think

Illustrated by Robert Labayen

I learned only recently about a scientific explanation why childhood can determine if a person will be happy or sad in later life.

Psychologist Rick Hanson revealed in the book Hardwiring Happiness the role of the amygdala in a person’s emotional inclination. The amygdala is a part of the brain that performs a primary role in the processing of emotions, memories and decisions.

Hanson cited a study by Wil Cunningham in which he found that parents unable to provide a warm and loving environment can make their children develop a “sad amygdala.” On the other hand, love and positive reinforcement can grow a “happy amygdala” in children. These children become optimistic and focused on opportunities instead of frustrations.

Fortunately, we can still cheer the sad amygdalas up even in adult life. Constant exposure to happiness and genuine love will help reverse the condition.

Experiences literally change the shape of our brain. Hanson also mentioned a research by Eleanor Maguire who discovered that London Taxi drivers developed a large lump in the hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain responsible for memory and visual and spatial orientation.

When we spend happy moments with children, playing games or having fun with colors, shapes, sounds, games, etc., we may actually  alter the physical makeup and intellectual capabilities of their brain.

Any parent knows that sometimes a child’s curiosity and enthusiasm are a test to our patience. They touch dirty things. They examine strangers in church. They scream for toys in a toy store. Or they want to stay awake when we’re exhausted. Annoyed, we sometimes snap at them, threaten them, or punish them. In the old times, parents would actually hit them with a stick!

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish are internationally-recognized experts on communication between adults and children. They wrote a book entitled How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Would Talk.

The authors counseled that when we punish a child, we encourage them to feel bitterness toward us. This would make them less likely to listen to us in the future.

What we can do is acknowledge their feelings. If we don’t know exactly what they want, let’s ask. Then we can explain why we have to do what we have to do. The goal is to come to a mutual agreement.

When the child is old enough, Faber and Mazlish advised that we must encourage a child’s autonomy. For example, we can let them figure out how they will divide their time between play and homework.

They said that every child deserves a chance to discover answers for themselves. They may make wrong decisions and it will stress us out. But that’s how they grow to be better persons. So, we must have tolerance and courage.

The Christmas break is a good time to think about how we deal with our children. Then again, let’s just bond with them, make memories that make happy amygdalas!
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