Learning to drive your mind.

We all have a standard human brain and they’re all exactly the same. Any one human brain is capable of doing and behaving in exactly the same way as any other human brain, and this includes the best and the worst of human endeavours.

This was how Prof Paul Gilbert opened a talk on Evolution, Compassion and Happiness this week arranged by Action for Happiness. Starting from an evolutionary angle provided an interesting perspective which makes total sense if you think about it. The higher human brain functions which evolved over the last two million years or so created a step-change increase in intelligence, logic and reason, but the new functionality also brought a unique set of downsides such as self-criticism, fearful imagination and shame. These downsides combine with an inbuilt negativity bias that’s common to all animals (it’s better to be safe than sorry and to assume the worst) to create the negative self-talk and rumination that plagues many of us.

In school we’re taught facts, history, languages and maths. We might be taught about the physiology of the human brain from a Western perspective, but we’re not taught the practicalities of how the brain works, how to get the best out of it and how to be happy. We never learn to drive our own mind!

It turns out that mindfulness and compassion together help us learn to detach from an over-active mind and in so doing to harness the full potential and power of the human brain.

This is powerful stuff, in fact Prof Gilbert went on to explain that true compassion consists of sensitivity to the distress of yourself and others along with a deep commitment to try to relieve or prevent it. So compassion is both an awareness of suffering or distress and an active desire to do something about it. Far from compassion being a ‘soft skill’, true compassion is incredibly courageous. You may have to think about this connection between compassion and courage for a while.

A quirk of the human mind is the ability to generate emotions and physical bodily reactions on demand. If you choose to think about a recent argument you can actually make yourself physically angry; your body will prepare itself to fight! If you think erotic thoughts you can even stimulate your body to be sexually aroused! As far as we know, no other animal has this ability to consciously affect the mind and the body, and it’s this curious feature of the human mind-body system that is developed through mindfulness practice.

We’re actually pretty familiar with the idea of getting ‘psyched up’ for say a meeting or a sports game, but what we’re not so familiar with in the West is the exact opposite response which is our ability to make an active choice to ‘psych down’ the mind and body. Mindfulness trains us to bring the mind to a state of rest and to connect into a state of being rather than doing. Then by adding kindness and compassion practices to mindfulness we can learn to self-generate compassion for ourselves and others.

The final piece of the jigsaw is what’s called eudemonic happiness, which means long-term happiness or human flourishing, and eudemonic happiness is grounded in positive emotion. So mindfulness and compassion practices work together to stimulate the brain’s relaxation response to create a sense of happiness and wellbeing. This calms the body and opens up the brain’s higher functions of intelligence, intellect and creativity.

So from evolutionary psychology we understand that the brain has a stress response and a relaxation response, and that crucially we are able to consciously trigger these responses. Every human brain is more or less the same so we understand that the mind is generated, and it has the capacity to be re-generated or re-wired. We practice mindfulness and compassion to trigger the relaxation response and to create a habit of calming the mind and the body.

Prof. Gilbert took us on a fascinating story from evolution and ancient meditative traditions through to modern physiology, psychology and long-term happiness. He encouraged us to detach from the mind that drives us on autopilot and to learn to take control and drive our own minds, or as he put it “To become mindful of nature’s mind.”

The future of good work.

I recently attended two events on good work and leadership with some of the best experts in the field. At a publicity event for his new book Together is Better, author, speaker and top TED Talker-er Simon Sinek spoke about his brand of servant leadership and a few days later I was at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to hear Chief Executive Matthew Taylor give his annual lecture, this year on the theme of ‘Good Work For All’, alongside a panel of eminent guests. This article is in the form of a report which covers the most interesting themes that stood out from the two events along with some context of my own.

The consensus was that in many ways the future of work is already here, the challenge for business and leadership is to catch up with the technology and the unequivocal evidence on working best practices from the fields of psychology and neuroscience. The benefits for businesses that are early adopters are that they will take first mover advantages in productivity, effectiveness, recruitment and retention.

Matthew Taylor outlined the starting pain point as the well-documented productivity issue in the UK relative to other major economies. In the time that a British worker makes £1, a German worker makes £1.35. Layered on top of this is the high cost to business and to society caused by stress in the workplace. According to the UK government Health and Safety Executive, stress is the number one cause of absence from work accounting for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. However things don’t need to be this way; as Simon Sinek commented, “The way we’re doing business is old fashioned and outdated.”

So what does good work look like? 

As we move from the manufacturing age into the information age, and as the 3rd industrial revolution gets underway, Matthew Taylor described good work as “fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.” The world of work is changing fast with globalisation, de-industrialisation, automation and technology all having a disruptive effect on traditional jobs and working practices. The challenge is to improve the quality of work in this era of rapid change.

Speaking on the RSA panel Peter Cheese Chief Executive of the CIPD was bullish about the need for a radical “shift in mindset” necessary to keep up with the pace of change and in line with established research on effectiveness at work; he called for a “move towards evidence-based management.” Matthew Taylor advocated a “shift from focus on pay and conditions to meaning” while work and health researcher Professor Dame Carol Black made the point that “we should be talking about good work and good workplaces” where businesses take a holistic approach to “total worker health and not just health and safety.” Other key elements of good work were described by the panellists as engagement, community, safety, trust and autonomy.

Creating a productive environment

There’s huge scope for improving productivity by applying evidence-based insights from positive psychology and neuroscience. Speaking on the RSA panel Sandra Sands – she’s the new editor of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 – discussed “creating an environment in which people feel safe to fail” citing the evidence that a benign workplace improves productivity.

Continuing to deliver a progressive message, Peter Cheese stressed the importance of recognising the disconnect between hours worked and output. He encouraged greater use of empowered flexible working based on trust and autonomy as a response to “the scourge of presentee-ism” and the clear evidence that working long hours is not good for businesses or people. He also questioned how productivity should be defined in the knowledge economy of intellectual capital. In knowledge based and creative industries in particular, businesses need to be increasingly aware that the relationship between hours worked and productivity is not linear. This reflected Matthew Taylor’s view that a “shift away from a Protestant work ethic” will benefit productivity, mental wellbeing and the bottom line.

The future of good leadership

Matthew Taylor’s view was that bad work is the result of weak leadership and management, and the UK’s productivity issue is a result of a historic lack of investment in training. On leadership Simon Sinek had also been clear that “companies need to invest in soft skills as well as hard skills.” From a leadership perspective the general view was that there’s a huge opportunity to improve the quality of work by improving the quality of leadership; at senior level the task is to enable engagement by instilling authentic principles and purpose into corporate culture from the top down. This needs to be servant-leadership from Simon Sinek’s perspective that “real leadership does not equate to rank or authority, the real leader is in service.” Peter Cheese picked up the empowerment message with a call to shift from rules to principles; instead of controlling “bad robots” with rules, empower people with principles. Empowerment and engagement were also picked up on the RSA panel by Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI who spoke in positive terms about encouraging businesses to appoint employee representatives to the board.

At management level the call was for a step-change in management training based on evidence-based best-practice to equip managers to counter under-employment (ineffective use of the workforce) and very often simply to equip people to step up into a management role. For people at all levels Simon Sinek spoke passionately on self-leadership giving the advice that “you have to be the leader you wished you had” with encouragement to mentor or teach someone as the best way to learn.

The question of measurement was tackled by Carol Black who asked “Who is paying attention and how are they measuring health and wellbeing?” Her suggestion was for a member of the board to be charged with reporting back on measures of health and wellbeing in the way that other figures are reported back to the board.

Good work for all

It was great to see the topics of good work and leadership approached from different angles with Simon Sinek coming from the millennials’ perspective and the RSA event providing insight into the latest thinking from eminent captains of industry and top government advisors. In his position as Chief Executive of the CIPD Peter Cheese stood out; I was encouraged to hear such a clear message of progressive and disruptive thinking from this organisation along with a sense of urgency that the changes are happening now and businesses need to adapt now.

How well positioned is your business for the changes that are coming down the line and what jumped out for you? How can you install a culture of “Good Work for All’ in your organisation?

You can watch a video of the RSA ‘Good Work For All’ event here and Matthew Taylor’s review into Modern Employment Practices for the UK government will be released in summer 2017.

Simon Sinek’s viral interview on Millennials in the Workplace is here and his Ted Talks on ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’ (the 3rd most viewed Ted Talk ever) and ‘Why Good Leaders Make you Feel Safe’ are here and here.

This article was first published on LinkedIn

Stepping through my invisible door.

After a couple of rocky years in which real life happened in the form of our home being wrecked by a water leak, my partner being out of work and a bereavement, all at the same time as establishing my business, I was pleased to turn the corner at the start of this year which I began with a feeling of renewal, optimism and energy. This year I’ve been continuing my journey of personal and professional development along with building my daily mindfulness practise. This work has got me to a good place although it feels as if I’m standing in front of an invisible door.

Through providing authenticity coaching – in which I help clients to know themselves and be themselves – it’s crucial that I’m committed to doing my own ongoing deep inner work. Where I’ve got to is a good understanding of my human experience, so to me this means knowing myself in the sense of understanding what it means to be a human being interleaved with my own life experience of being human. The invisible door I’m talking about is the door to fully expressing my human experience.

Although it takes time, effort and sometimes facing up to uncomfortable realities, learning about yourself can be reasonably straight-forward with the right professional support. Knowing yourself is about uncovering new information about yourself and if you put in the hard work you can become self-aware. The biggest challenge for many people is to take off the mask they wear to uncover the fullest version of themselves. I’ve found that this is the hardest part of being authentic because it requires both courage and vulnerability.

My invisible door relates to fully embodying everything I’ve learned about authenticity from ancient wisdom to modern psychology and brain-science. In other words I know the theory but I still struggle to put it into practice!

A big step forward has been learning more about non-Western approaches to ‘self’ from the Eastern wisdom traditions including Buddhism, Taoism and the Chinese philosophy of Confucius. In the Eastern traditions there’s no sense of finding your ‘true self’ because this idea begs the obvious question; found by whom? The answer can only be you, so how can ‘you’ find ‘you’? It doesn’t makes sense! The Eastern approach is to think of ourselves as complex interactions of emotions, responses, desires and traits that pull us in different and contradictory directions moment by moment.

How can ‘you’ find ‘you’? It doesn’t make sense!

I’m learning that my Western thinking-and-doing mind perceives the answer to being really me as existing in the future. My mind says, “If I can just think differently or do things differently then I’ll discover my true self and live happily ever after”. Of course it doesn’t work this way, this is like a dog chasing its tail. The nub of the problem is that this means I’m not trusting my current self.

What I’ve come to realise is that I’m part of the universe and the universe is part of me. Trust in myself is the same as trust in the universe. If I don’t trust in either I’m constantly thinking about what I need to do to get to that place of trust which, being in the future, is never in the present moment.

So my invisible door is about trusting myself as I am right now. It’s trusting myself to tap into the wisdom that’s already within me, to let things be, to allow myself to evolve and to trust in myself as part of the universe. In other words to let me be me.

So my invisible door is about trusting myself as I am right now.

‘Knowing yourself and being yourself’ isn’t a destination you arrive at, it’s about who you’re being right now. It’s realising that you’ve already arrived, in fact you’ve really always been there.

It’s about knowing what it’s like to be human and being human. It’s about having the courage to take off your mask, having the vulnerability to express yourself, and living the life you want to lead rather than a life other people expect of you. It’s about growing towards the future from the person you are rather than growing towards an imagined person you want to be at some future point in time.

So this is my own journey of self-leadership and this is where I’m at right now. As I stand in front of the invisible door I realise in this moment that I’m already on the other side.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.