How to lead a happier life – Milestone #4: Please mind the gap

“Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Mind the gap.”

Who would have thought that this well-intentioned reminder blasting from the London Underground, and many other transit systems around the world, would actually carry an important and wise message beyond trains and holes?

This article is inspired by Peter Senge’s discussion on personal mastery in his book The Fifth Discipline; in particular, the gap between our personal vision and our current reality.

Vision???

No, we are not talking about those big company statements that employees can barely remember, much less buy into. We are talking about you and your vision of/for yourself. In essence, what do you truly want? What is a picture of yourself in the future that you want to see?

If you have an answer to that question, good. If you find yourself struggling for an answer, I suggest that now is the time to reclaim those dreams which you have banished into the modern-day winter palace, or to create new ones.

The essential gap

For all of us, there exists a gap between our vision and the current reality. However successful and happy one might be, there will always be a gap, simply because it is in our nature to grow and better ourselves. The difference between you and the next person lies in how wide the gap is and what do you do about that gap. Brian Johnson brilliantly calls this innocent space the Integrity Gap.

Closing the gap

A large number of us walk around every day under the subconscious weight of our cognitive dissonance. We want A but we settle for B, and this feeling of discomfort sits in us like a malign tumor that eats away at our spirit slowly. It is what contributes to that nagging dissatisfaction that we have about Life – knowing that we are not doing our best, and therefore living out of integrity with ourselves.

So, what do we do? We try to close the gap to make ourselves feel better, and we do so by means of the following:

  • Seeking an immediate short-term solution for instant gratification. As an extreme example, robbing a bank (I’m sure you got the message)
  • Lowering the vision, a.k.a. compromising and settling
  • Stretching our current reality towards our vision

Which of these is most familiar to you?

The secret to happiness is to live in integrity with your vision and commit to being and acting your best on a moment-to-moment basis, even if it means to stretch beyond your comfort zone and to risk failing or looking like a fool.  The other two options might be easier, but they are dangerous because they trap you in a cycle of suffering and unfulfillment.

On the other hand, taking the road less travelled will be tough and you will most definitely experience pain and struggles. However, it is through this that you will tap into your hidden potential (however cliché it sounds, there is a huge truth to this) and experience strength, joy and freedom like never before, just as how a caterpillar undergoes an intense struggling in the cocoon phase to emerge as a magnificent butterfly. I’ve never heard of a caterpillar that would reject its own evolution because it was afraid of the pain; neither have I seen an eagle that would settle for crawling instead of flying because it thinks that flying is tough. It is part of nature to embrace our greatness and destiny, just as it is in the destiny of an acorn to become a majestic oak tree. We humans are the only ones who would go against nature. Thankfully, we have the power to choose and to change. It is still not too late.

Honouring the gap

Not everything about the gap is gloom and doom. A healthier alternative to the rob-the-bank approach of resolving that cognitive dissonance is to practice the discipline of delayed gratification. It means to honour the fact that you are not yet where you want to be and to gratefully hold that space even as you consistently move towards your vision. This space has a magic of its own called the ‘creative tension’. It is where great ideas are born.

Living with a network of visions

In this imperfect game we call Life, it is not all black and white and easy-peasy Bingo. What happens when you’ve decided to stand by your vision and you find that someone has another vision for you, or that your organization has another vision which you have to subscribe to?

We live in a world that is quite like the Matrix, with visions crisscrossing each other all over the place. Like Neo, there will be bullets coming at you. Some will be called ‘Be realistic’; some will be called ‘You’re not good enough’; some will be called ‘This is what I want for you instead’. The challenge is to commit to living your personal and professional vision, and to be spacious and creative enough to find a way to align it with a bigger vision that encompasses that of your organization or your loved ones.

Hold on to your vision – it is a powerful force for change; for aligning your actions and decisions with your inner north star.

“It’s not what the vision is; it’s what the vision does” – Peter Senge

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How to lead a happier life – Milestone #3: Seven tools to pack with you

Some people see life and happiness as a destination; some see it as a journey. I’ve always been more inclined towards the latter, believing that life is one great adventure of rainbows and storms and everything else in between. We do not arrive at a state of perfect happiness; instead, we can become happier day by day, year by year.

On this journey of experience, you will need to equip yourself with tools; the quality of experience that you will receive is partially influenced by the tools that you pack with you. Some of us carry a ticking time-bomb without even realising it! Out of the many, here are seven tools which I have found to be highly correlated with the degree of happiness.

1.    An attitude of gratitude and appreciation

I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is. This is the magic wand that will help transform any painful situations into precious learning experiences, any good moments into carriers of immense beauty, joy and peace. When you find yourself stuck in a long dark tunnel and can’t see the light, when all else fails, start digging for the gems within. What can you be truly grateful for in the present? Nothing is ever too small. Make it a habit to write down, daily, what you are grateful for.

This is especially powerful when used in your relationships; it creates miracles. No kidding.

2.    The ability to question

A hand shot up in class and the teacher groaned “oh no, it’s her again”.

In school, I was the kind of classmate that you would love to hate. I used to have so many questions, some quite unconventional ones even, that the teacher would struggle for an answer as the rest of the class looks on in amusement (or perhaps irritation).

Thankfully, I must say that I have managed to preserve that ability even as I grow up. I question, a lot. Many of these questions opened up more questions which have gotten me closer to the answers and given me more than I asked for.

Be awake, don’t just take things as they are, as if in a state of half-slumber. Question what you have been taught as ‘facts’, question the limits and boundaries, question your beliefs, question Life. Without questions, you will never begin your quest. It is when we seek that we shall find.

3.    Kindness towards others

It takes just one genuine smile, one kind word, or one thoughtful gesture to make a big difference and every interaction can be a make-or-break deal. I have lost count of the number of occasions when a stranger’s kindness has turned my day around, for which they are unaware of and I am eternally grateful for. Be just as kind to the loved ones around you; they are the ones whom we often take for granted.

Always be kind, you never know what the other person is going through. Your innocuous comment or action will either start a chain of kindness or a chain of violence (physical or psychological), choose mindfully and wisely. Adopt kindness as a way of being and a way of life.

4.    Courage to take risks

What will your tomorrow be like?

In response to that question, many would probably start listing down the plans that they have made and assume that that is what will happen. A truer answer might be ‘I don’t know’. Every single day and every single moment, we are taking risks. A very basic example would be when you cross the road; as a responsible pedestrian, how do you know for sure that the driver is an equally responsible one? Life is full of uncertainty and risks, both big and small. We would go crazy if we are to consider all the permutations of dangers and possibilities for every single situation! Therefore, we take risks, mostly subconsciously. It is in our nature.

The risks that we are talking about here are risks that you are consciously uncomfortable of, most likely involving psychological fear, not real dangers like putting your hand in the fire. Something for which you have a gut feeling that it is the right thing to do, and yet there are little voices talking you out of it. Have some common sense, and at the same time stay a little foolish.

As the saying goes, one does not discover new lands unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. Your current boundaries got you to this land; to get to a better place, go beyond.

5.    Love for Nature

There is something about nature that simply can’t be replaced.

In my darkest days, when everything else falls apart and one finds that there is nothing real to hold on to, I have found solace in the gentle arms of nature. It heals with its harmony and beauty, and teaches with its diversity and generosity. It is a familiar space where we all come from, just like the familiar warmth of a mother’s womb.

There is something that speaks to everyone. For me, the sea holds a special place in my soul. For you, it might be the horse, the mountains, the trees, the sunset, or just a vast expanse of grassland. Recognise it, and dedicate time each day to be in parts of it, even if for a while.

6.    Willingness to Give up

What? First you encourage us to take risks, and now you’re telling us to give up?

Yes. I don’t buy into the tagline of ‘Never give up’. Never… really?

I do think that it is highly necessary to give up at times, just as death needs to happen every winter before there can be new life in spring. I’m not just talking about giving up of a goal or pursuit, although that is sometimes required.

Rather, to give up the need to always win and the position of being right. In the world, much war has been fought in the need to protect one’s position of authority. In many homes, relationships have been broken because we were unwilling to budge from our positions of self-righteousness. We traded valuable relationships for the comfort of being right. How does that deal sound? In ourselves, we remain stuck in patterns that make us unhappy because we were unwilling to give up our attachment to the ego behaviours.

Giving up is not easy, and can be painful. However, it is not as painful as suffering with what you are holding on to. What else are you holding on to so tightly, that you need to give up?

7.    Kiss of Death

This is something very intimately intertwined into my life, something which I still have many questions and open thoughts about. Accepting the possibility that Death could be just a kiss away has taught me how to live.

We all know that we have X amount of years to live. The fallacy is that X is a figure that we are comfortable with. How do you know for sure? What if X is much smaller than you think it is? With this in mind, you can either shrink back in fear and prepare for death, or you can expand your energy and feed life with life.

You are either living vibrantly each day or you are dying slowly – which are you?

Don’t just read this article, think that it makes sense and feel good about it. You know that they will likely be forgotten when new pieces of information enter your mind space. Instead, really think about what changes you want to make in your life, and act on it. Set up reminders to revisit the article at a later time(s). If you need to, print it out and paste it on your wall. Discuss about it. This is meant to be a partner that will shape and re-shape your journey, just like the seven tools.

Picture source: http://desertofziph.ca

How to lead a happier life – Milestone #2: Ask better questions, think better thoughts

Boy, what a summer it has been! Within the month of July, it has been one adventure after another, covering 17 different cities and towns in 3 different countries with 3 of the dearest people in my life. A priceless experience of stepping out of an invisible cage and savouring life; an experience which has left deep imprints and is creating ripple effects toward my quest of finding the answer to the big question of ‘how to live’.

As I recounted those adventures to my friends, they listened wide-eyed, as if the stories had swept them off their feet and wiped the air out of their breaths. One exclaimed his surprise at how I found beauty and awe within the highly uncomfortable circumstances; many others would have drowned themselves in complaints. He brought up a very crucial factor of the level of our happiness – our thoughts and focus.

We all talk to ourselves through our thoughts, every single moment; the scientists found it to be at an approximate rate of 60,000 times a day. Many of these thoughts come in the form of questions. What should I wear… I wonder what they think of me… Should I have done that instead… Why does this always happen to me… I’m not good enough… etc. What many don’t realise is this: those questions and thoughts have got you here; if you want to get to a better place, then you have to ask better questions and think better thoughts. What got you here won’t get you there.

As a practice, let’s take three questions or thoughts that are frequent residents in our minds and explore better alternatives to them.

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EXAMPLE 1

Why is this (always) happening to me?

Asking so implies that you have no control and power over something that is being done to you, and it is likely that the answer to that question would lead to more unhappiness.

Alternative A – If you seek to understand and learn from the situation

How have I been responsible for this happening? / What can I learn from this?

We all contribute to the events that happen in our lives, even if we are unaware of it. Asking this question helps you focus on what you can control and influence, and leaves you better equipped to deal with a similar situation in future.

Alternative B – If you seek to get unstuck from the situation and move forward

What needs to be done now?

This moves you away from a state of being victimised to an empowered state that is solution-driven.

EXAMPLE 2:

Am I good enough?

This is a yes-no question riding on the train of Doubt.

It includes all other permutations of the same question, e.g. I’m not smart enough… I don’t have enough credentials or experience… I’m too fat… I’m too thin… I’m too young… I’m too old… etc.

Alternative A – If you seek to improve something about yourself

How can I…?

The question of being good enough is an incomplete one; the complete sentence will include the context, e.g.

  • I’m too young to take on this role –> how can I play this role well?
  • I’m not good enough for him (or her) –> how can I be a better person and partner?

Alternative B – If you seek to have an honest evaluation of yourself

What are my strengths? What are the areas I need to work on?

EXAMPLE 3:

He (or she) is so lucky to be living the life he loves

Very often, we look at others with envy as we see them having something that we wish for ourselves. This envy comes with a sense of separation, that ‘he is he and I am I’ and that he is the only privileged one for whom the door of happiness and success has opened for. Everyone has a story, and it is easy for observers to just see the success and miss the struggles that are tied to it.

Alternative A

What can I learn or model from him?

This is the power of leverage! As they say, success leaves traces. If there is something about his life that resonates with you, ask him how he did it. Instead of having your own thoughts churning inside your head, talk to him.

People seldom ask, and asking is in fact one of the most powerful missing link.

Alternative B

What kind of life do I want to create or design?

Bring your focus away from envying others to clarifying what is your unique life and aligning your actions with that vision. Use your energy wisely.

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Our mind is a brilliant thing. It can conjure up all kinds of questions and answers. It has no limitations and can take us to our wildest imaginations, just like a free-spirited wild horse. The flipside of this is that this horse is untamed and can bring us over the cliff edges just as it can take us to the most amazing pastures. What it needs is a skilful master, and that’s you.

Start off by being an observer of your thoughts, emotions, actions and habits. Notice what you are thinking, feeling, doing, and the patterns that run your life. You will soon find that you are able to catch yourself asking un-resourceful questions or thinking disempowering thoughts. Once you are able to do that, you are ready for the next step – replacing them with better alternatives.

How to lead a happier life – Milestone #1: Listen, and take what you hear seriously

Introduction

Why, you may ask, would anyone actually write a ‘how to’ on living a life? Or even a happier life? In the past, I would have brushed this off as something fluffy and commonsensical. Today, however, I’ve decided to join a league of many other writers in exploring this topic.

The trigger came when I was contacted by an old friend with whom I’ve not been in contact with over the last ten years, and she wanted to know how I got to where I am today. She was not the first, and if my guess is right, there are many others out there who have the same questions. Maybe you don’t feel fulfilled with where you currently are; maybe you are looking for something more; or maybe you just think that it might be a good idea to keep a curious and open mind to what you do not know yet. I would be foolish to say that I have a perfectly happy life and that I know it all, but after being asked the same questions by countless people – old friends, new friends – over the past year, I am starting to realize that I do have some good stuff to share after all. I do know some things which might turn out to be a valuable stepping stone for you.

And so, I shall share with you what I have learnt. I will call them Milestones, simply because they have the potential to be. Many of these Milestones will sound very simple, commonsensical or even cliché – I assure you. The tough part lies in actually incorporating them into your life and practising them. That is when you will start to see your life change, slowly but surely. I, too, am still on the way to mastering them, and I am on this journey with you, sharing these lessons and Milestones along the way.

Milestone #1: Listen, and take what you hear seriously

One of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘what made you decide to do what you do, to give up a comfortable job and go halfway round the world to pursue your dreams?’

In deciding what will be a useful first Milestone to share with you, it was a clear choice to begin with Listening. With all the noise and distractions around us, many of us have forgotten how to tune in to our gut feelings, and to recognize that that inner voice is much more powerful and important than what you hear from your external environment.

The fact that you are even asking me that question is revealing to you that a part of you wants that too, believe it or not.

Before you can take the first step toward a happier life, you first need to recognize that a deeper part of you do want to change. We are all guided by an inner compass which, if ignored, is expressed as a deep hunger that will continue to come up until we move in the right direction. Many people hear this inner compass all the time, but they start to take it seriously only when something happens with their health and they realize that they do not have much time to live. Sadly, I have some friends for whom this is true. How, then, can you know what to listen to? These questions might give you some clues.

  • Have there been moments when you get an intense feeling about something, and at that moment, you are filled with absolute clarity, conviction and inspiration screaming to you that this is it?
  • Have those moments been brief and, as quickly as they came, they are soon replaced with doubts, fears or counter-arguments which are just as strong?
  • Have those moments returned at some point, and there is a slight sense of longing or regret attached to them?
  • What are the questions that come to you in the still of the night, when you are alone and the world is silent?
  • If tomorrow the world will end, what will you regret not doing?

I have no answers for you; you will need to find your own. I am quite certain that you will not find these questions unfamiliar. Whatever answers that come up from these questions are worth taking seriously, and I urge you to pull a notebook and write them down before they fly away again or get sucked into a bottomless pit of ‘yes, but’s.

A note to you

This article, and the following ones, is written for you. I hope for them to add value to your personal and professional life. Do subscribe to the blog by entering your email in the right-hand column of this page (either top or bottom) so you will not miss out on the following posts and Milestones. Till then, we’ll be talking more.

All the best 🙂

Picture source: reflectingonwater.blogspot.fi