Doing the right thing

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24th September 2017

This day last week was a great sporting day in Ireland, with the All-Ireland senior gaelic football championship final taking place between  Dublin and Mayo.  (For overseas readers, if you want to know what gaelic football is, look here for an overview. And if you think that’s mad, then watch the overview of our other national game, hurling, here! Contrary to what these clips depict, lots of women play the games too!)

The All-Ireland football final is to the Irish what the Super Bowl is to the Americans …  a big sporting event. Over 82,000 fans are packed into Croke Park Stadium and, this year, over 1 million people watched the game on TV, making it the most watched programme so far this year. So you can imagine, it’s a lucrative weekend for the national broadcaster. Advertisers battle to get their brands in front of viewers, planting subliminal messages which will later sprout and grow into choices that pay dividends.

My brain doesn’t offer a particularly fertile environment for such seeds. Like many Irish parents, with a never-ending to-do list, I usually spring up during advert breaks, making the most of a few bonus minutes to get another little job done … putting the roast in the oven, making sure the uniforms are dried… you get the idea. So, as usual, I didn’t even see the advertisements during last week’s match. However, my attention was captured during the week when I saw someone on social media expressing concern that two of the half-time premium advertising spots had gone to pizza companies.

Advertising pizza during the half-time of an All-Ireland final is a genius idea on the part of the pizza companies. The match will be over about 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. If we order pizza now, we’ll have it for when the match is over and we don’t have to bother with making dinner. Brilliant. But… and sorry to be boring here … not brilliant for our health. I have no problem with pizza or pizza companies (I very much like pizza in fact!). I don’t want a nanny state where we have curfews on when pizza adverts can be aired. I have no problem with broadcaster sales teams whose job it is to sell to the highest bidder. I understand how the world works and I understand my responsibility as a parent in being alert to subtle efforts to influence family choices. In my reflection on this issue, I seek not to find fault or assign blame. Rather, I’m curious about the dynamics of the situation.

In an ideal situation, I’d like to see some prime time advertising spots, such as those at half-time in an All-Ireland final, to be used for society enhancing messages and balanced with commercial spots which don’t promote unhealthy behaviours. I think of all the challenges our society faces in terms of obesity, cancer, mental health, road safety, suicide prevention … the list goes on. Could important societal self-care messages be “sold” during premium spots? I doubt that government agencies or patient-charities can afford such rates and I doubt that broadcaster sales teams will make their targets if they don’t make the most of every sale. In short, I doubt there is a feasible business case that could support my suggestion. But maybe we shouldn’t always need a business case to do the right thing. A friend sent me this article during the week, with that exact title!

I have been around the block enough times now to realise that “doing the right thing” doesn’t always make financial sense. I believe that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the society in which we live. We can’t wash our hands of the country’s challenges and lament that government doesn’t do enough to save us from ourselves. There is no convincing business case for me that justifies getting up in the middle watching of an enjoyable football game to put on a roast for dinner. It would be easier, nicer, more enjoyable to stay curled up on the couch with my family whilst phoning in a pizza order for dinner. It comes at greater inconvenience to me to prepare a home-made, nutritious meal, but I do it because I believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s just annoying that the rest of the family sits salivating over a more-attractive looking pizza on the adverts, making my dinner look boring by comparison!

I don’t know what other adverts were shown at half-time last Sunday. Maybe the pizza adverts were balanced with public awareness messages. Maybe the national broadcaster does reserve prime time spots for public awareness messages that support important national priorities. Maybe I shouldn’t write about things if I don’t know all the facts. For me, the LinkedIn comment prompted an interesting reflection and, on a personal level, made me realise that I need to be aware that subliminal messages are being conveyed to my family all the time from a world that seems increasingly obsessed with commercial and financial success. At a more general level, it raises the question of how committed we are, as a society, to doing the right thing. Making the right choice the easy choice is one of the building blocks of health promotion. Last Sunday, a pizza would certainly have been the easy choice!



Can you identify times when the right choice conflicts with the easy choice? Do you ever find yourself making decisions that aren’t the “right thing” for our society, but which support the accepted norms in our world? It’s worth taking some time to reflect on whether this might be the case. Sometimes just becoming more aware that tensions exist is the first step to figuring out how to manage them.

 

Rumination Vs Reflection

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September 9th 2017

I haven’t blogged for a few months. People have been in touch asking me why I’ve stopped. Some assume that I’ve taken a break for the summer, others assume I’ve grown bored of it and others still wonder if I’ve received a negative response to a blog that upset me. Those who know me see that I’ve been busy and assume that I don’t have time for blogging any more.

None are these hypotheses are true.  It would be convenient to pretend they were. It would be easy to lament how a busy life has robbed me of the time to reflect.  Poor Time …  the reliable scapegoat, always covering for other, more deeply-buried reasons!

Have I been busy? Yes. Has someone upset me? No. Have I run out of things to say? No.  The Truth?  Over the past few months, for a few specific reasons, I unwittingly slipped from reflection into rumination. It wasn’t intended. It just happened. I didn’t even realise it was happening.  Every time I sat down to write a blog, I realised my brain was going around in circles in a most unproductive and disconcerting way. It never felt right to share anything that I wrote.

I’ve had a chance to reflect on what prompted this shift…. maybe it can be the topic of a blog for another day. Not now. But irrespective of what triggered it, I find it interesting to compare the processes of rumination and reflection.

If you look for information on the difference between rumination and reflection, you’ll find plenty. Generally, it’s accepted that whilst the processes may seem similar, they can lead us to completely different places, like two trains pulling out of a station at the same time, heading in opposite directions.

Rumination involves thinking about something deeply, often in a repetitive way. Whilst it enables us to consider an issue from many different angles, it can cause us to get sucked into the issue. We can end up going around in circles that don’t lead anywhere. If accompanied by negative thinking, it can result in a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity and stress. Whilst the process of reflection usually results in some type of forward momentum, rumination can cause stagnation.

Believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted to read my ruminations over the past few months. I was going around in circles, churning the same issues over and over again. It became tedious, frustrating and repetitive. It felt like a broken record, a scratched CD, a download hanging in cyber-space.

By reflecting on the past few months, I have identified the triggers that caused me to slip from reflection to rumination. I’ll be avoiding those in future! Somewhat ironically, reflection has clarified the difference between the two processes for me, which no amount of rumination could have done. I now appreciate that some people may mistake rumination for reflection, and, if that’s the case, I can understand why they would be unconvinced of the benefits of reflection. Through reflecting on the past few months, my thinking had subtly, but significantly, changed and I am no longer wandering around with a headful of aimless, glum thoughts.

It seems to me from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, that lots of people might be stuck in ruminative cycles. What do you do? Do you have a tendency to dwell on things, to get stuck in a rut of repetitive thinking? If so, think about the possibility of stepping off that train, crossing the platform, and stepping onto a train that’s going in the opposite direction.

The pearl in the oyster

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Last week I wrote about the importance of getting the balance right between negative and positive interactions to maintain healthy relationships and to flourish. The concept of needing a certain level of negativity in life was mentioned, which can seem like a rather odd proposition. It’s certainly not a new
concept. Without the wicked stepmother, so many princesses would never find their prince (although I do wish fairy-tales would change the record sometimes!), without the “bad-guy” the “good-guy” wouldn’t triumph. The juxtaposition of good and evil, of positive and negative, is widely accepted. But leaving fairy-tales and extremes aside, how does the balance of positivity and negativity work in our lives?

I think this issue is neatly addressed in the animated movie “Inside out” (yes, I know it’s a kid’s film, but it’s brilliant!) where the main character, Joy, discovers to her surprise that sadness is a necessary part of life which ultimately enhances our experience of joy. As inconvenient as it is, sadness is a necessary part of the rich tapestry of a life well-lived. If you haven’t seen “Inside Out” I would suggest having a look! The portrayal of the inner dialogue going on in both the Mum and Dad’s brains at dinner is hilarious!

When faced with a negative situation or irritant, I try to remember the pearl analogy. Pearls are formed as a defense mechanism against an irritant, such as grit or sand. The oyster’s natural reaction is to cover up the irritant with layers of the same nacre substance that is used to create the shell. This eventually forms a pearl, a thing of beauty which would never have existed without initial irritation. This reaction is exploited by pearl farmers, who purposefully insert irritants to oysters to promote pearl formation. I’m not suggesting going out in search of irritants to insert in my life, but I will frequently seek out people who will provide the grit needed to initiate development of a pearl of an idea. Also, when I come across unwanted irritation or unwelcome grittiness, I try to remind myself that this may be starting point for something more meaningful and that it may serve as a useful prompt for reflection. If nothing else, you just need to have something to tell yourself on tough days.

Can you look back and identify sources of irritation which ultimately led to something better? Rather than trying to eliminate irritations from your life, are there other approaches you could use? Have you inadvertently ended up with some pearls?

The magic relationship ratio

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Well, the concept of supportive challenge from last week didn’t seem to gain much traction! In fact, for the first time in my (short) blogging history there was almost radio silence from readers. I found this interesting and it led me to … reflect! 🙂 This time on the balance required between positivity and negativity.

Previously I have written about the importance of positivity and the importance of relationships and trust. John Gottman brings these two concepts neatly together by focusing on the importance of positive interactions in maintaining trusting relationships, though his magic relationship ratio. He proposes that a ratio of 5:1 positive:negative interactions is required to maintain positive relationships. That means that you need five positive interactions to counteract one negative interaction. Although this concept originated in analysis of marital relationships it has since been shown to be valid in lots of types of relationships, including those in the workplace. Maureen Gaffney, in her book Flourishing, refers to this as the Flourishing Ratio where she proposes that for every burst of irritability, every tense exchange, every negative thought and feeling of disappointment, there has to be five times as many positives.

This is a principle that I now try to bring to all aspects of my life… how I treat my family, how I interact with my colleagues and friends and, probably most importantly, how I talk to myself! I don’t always achieve it but I do find that conflict in relationships is much more easily resolved where there is a sufficient cushion of positivity.

Note the fact that the magic ratio isn’t 5:0. A certain amount of negativity is needed in the world. In fact Maureen Gaffney maintains that appropriate negativity has an important role to play in flourishing. Yet many of us shy away from it.  Sometimes, however, shying away isn’t an option.

With this in mind, I was reminded of a publication which I read a number of years ago in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice entitled Who do you think you are? Pharmacists perceptions of their professional identities“. The researchers interviewed 43 pharmacists about how they perceived themselves in the context of their professional identities. It’s an interesting article and could lead to a whole raft of different blogs! But one particular point stood out for me which is related to this topic of the magic relationship ratio. One pharmacist, described their approach to difficult conversations as follows…

“a lot of the time you’re potentially going up to doctors and saying, you know ‘I disagree with what you’ve prescribed here’, you have to be able to put that across in a friendly way, without sounding like you’re constantly nagging them, otherwise you don’t have a very good relationship with them”

I agree with the idea that if you are must have this type of conversation, you should approach it in a friendly manner. However, as a pharmacist, if every interaction I have with a doctor is focused on telling him/her when they have made an error in prescribing, it’s unlikely to result in a positive relationship, no matter how nicely I phrase it! If I consider the magic relationship ratio, I need to have five positive interactions counteracting that negative one in order to maintain a good relationship. I never considered this when I practiced as a pharmacist. I contacted GP colleagues when there was a problem because a conversation was needed. I handled it as nicely as I could but, to be honest, I rarely, if ever,invested any thought into the importance of balancing those interactions with more separate, positively focused conversations. To be fair, my GP colleagues were always very professional and responded well but I do wonder now if I could have been more mindful of the relationships. With an increasing focus on inter-professional working in our healthcare systems, perhaps it is worth considering how we can achieve the magic relationship ratio across the resultant relationships.

 

Reflection time

 

Take a moment to consider your relationships with others. Do you always achieve the 5:1 ratio? Are there times when you’re not able to build up a cushion of positivity to counter the negative interactions? In these cases, is there anything you could you do to get closer to the magic relationship ratio?

 

Opposing views.

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I am lucky to have a number of people in my life who provide me with a healthy balance of support and challenge. I meet lots of people who are willing to support me, which is lovely, but they often shy away from the edgy conversations. I also meet people who are willing to challenge, often in the adversarial sense of trying to ensure that their view dominates. Whilst I enjoy the debate and the challenge, these are often competitive types of interactions rather than ones designed to faciltate growth. It’s difficult to find people who are perpared to both support and challenge you in the interests of driving you to be a better version of yourself, so when you find them you should cherish them.

One of my fears with blogging is that I wind up in a self-perpetuating self-congratulatory cycle where I only hear from the people who like what I write. Everyone who has contacted me thus far has been quite complimentary and encouraging and I have been very grateful for that. However I’m not so naive to think that this means that everyone is positively disposed to what I’m doing. I am savvy enough to know that anyone who thinks it’s a pile of rubbish will simply ignore it and that most people will simply dismiss it as something that’s not doing a whole lot of harm but not necessarily doing a whole lot of good either. Therefore I was interested to seek out the views of someone who would give me their opinion straight up.

For me, one such person is a former boss of mine, Mary Rose Burke. This lady has taught me lots about myself and about the world more generally. She is independence and passion personified and is a brilliant role model for anyone trying to achieve a balance between family, work and life more generally. She lives her life authentically, thinks differently to most people I know and shares her insights generously. Therefore I was delighted to bump into her last week and was curious to know what she thought of my blogs.

Needless to say, Mary Rose didn’t disappoint. She provided some encouraging comments about some of the blogs before moving to a position of challenge. She queried the value of sharing self-reflection in such a public forum and whether it was really of any benefit to readers to be subjected to my internal musings. I was delighted to hear the counter position and asked if she would write a guest blog. It’s a testimony to Mary Rose’s patience with me that she obliged by writing a blog about why people shouldn’t write blogs! As she says herself, she’s a reluctant blogger. Her blog, here, raises some super questions, ones to which I don’t necessarily have appropriate answers. I agree with her view on the deeply personal nature of self-reflection and yet simultaneously also find myself agreeing with the likes of Brené Brown on the importance of vulnerability in our world. Yes, self-reflection ought to be a private affair, but I fear that we’ve made it so private that people don’t know how to go about it and don’t feel comfortable talking about it.

I’d love to hear your views. If you get a chance, read Mary Rose’s blog and lets have a proper debate about whether this blogging lark is of any value to anyone. Fear not, this is not going to turn into a match between two opposing views. Rather, it’s an opportunity to help shape my thinking on how I should approach blogging. Have I shared too much and ventured past the boundaries of appropriateness? Or is more vulnerability and open reflection what the world needs? Or is it an entirely irrelevant question in a world that has much more to worry about than what I think? Irrespective, I’m going to keep blogging because I find it a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing thing to do…. but your views might influence what I choose to share.

Reflection time

Once again I find myself grateful for people like Mary Rose in my life, and fortunately I have quite a few of them around me. They keep me grounded whilst giving me wings. They pose the difficult questions from which so many others shy away. They challenge me to question what I’m doing without any expectation of compliance with their thinking.

Do you have people in your life who’ll challenge you supportively? If and when they do challenge, can you accept that challenge with a spirit of gratefulness or do you find yourself engaging in combat? Defending your position is a natural inclination but sometimes it’s useful to just listen and hear what’s being said. This touches on the topic introduced in last week’s blog (Teamwork: The importance of trust), where we introduced Patrick Lencioni’s hypothesis that fear of conflict can prevent teams from reaching their potential. A fear of conflict or an unwillingness to have challenging conversations stifles growth, creativity and trust. Willingness to voice, and hear, oppossing views enables growth and strengthens relationships. It’s a topic to which I have no doubt we’ll return, particularly in the context of team development.

In the meantime, thanks, Mary Rose, for your reluctant blog! And thanks in advance to those of you who take a moment to share your thoughts on the subject.

Teams: The importance of trust

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26th May 2017

This week I had the privilege of working with colleagues in the School of Pharmacy in the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland (RCSI), the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, East Tennessee State University and the Irish Institute of Pharmacy to explore the topic of inter-professional collaboration and team-based approaches to patient care. This involved a day-long masterclass in RCSI on Wednesday and a number of other “fringe events”. As part of the programme of fringe events, I found myself in the studios of Raidió na Life, hosting a podcast where pharmacy and medical practitioners from Ireland and America shared their reflections on the concept of team-based approaches to healthcare (You can hear the recording here). It was a great experience. It was my first time to host such an event, which was a learning experience in itself, but more importantly it resulted in a rich and meaningful discussion which I think will prompt lots of reflection on how we could improve healthcare delivery in Ireland. My thanks to Prof. Reid Blackwelder, Dr. Brian Cross, Dr. McKenzie Calhoun, Mr. Paddy Byrne and Dr. Kieran O’Driscoll for contributing so authentically to the discussion and for sharing their reflections and insights. I believe that more conversations like this, forward-looking and positively-framed, are needed in order to start changing the order of things.

Given that we were considering team-based approaches to healthcare delivery this week, it’s not surprising that the topic of teamwork featured strongly in our discussions. Anybody who knows me knows that I am passionate about this topic! In fact, a number of readers have been specifically asking if I could share reflections on teamwork as part of my blog. It’s impossible to distill my thoughts about teamwork and effective team leadership into one blog-post, so I propose to dip in and out of the topic over time, reflecting on different aspects of teamwork as they arise in my day-to-day life. In light of the discussions about teamwork over the last week, today seems like an opportune time to start that reflection.

I have had the privilege of working with some fantastic teams over my career to date and I am lucky enough to be currently part of one of the best teams in which I have ever worked. Like most people, I have also worked in quite dysfunctional teams. Therefore, it’s easy for me to reflect on what I think differentiates a good team from a not-so-good team. With a great team around you, the impossible becomes possible. It’s where the magic happens.

During the past week, and most notably in the podcast discussion, it is clear that strong relationships are important in teamwork. Whether you are working within a structured and clearly-defined team or you find yourself thrust into situations where you need to collaborate with others informally, relationships are considered a vital ingredient to good teamwork. In my opinion, this can be distilled down even further to one essential ingredient: trust. Without trust, the magic just can’t happen.

The Collins English dictionary states the following in defining trust: “If you trust someone, you believe that they are honest and sincere and will not deliberately do anything to harm you.” Upon reading such a definition, it makes complete sense that you need trust for a team to work well together. The absence of trust would suggest that there are concerns regarding honesty, sincerity or intentions. How could a team perform effectively, let alone flourish, in such an environment? How could any meaningful relationships be established?

The interesting thing about a really powerful team is that you don’t necessarily have to like everyone in the team in order to have trust. In my experience teams are most powerful when they are made up of people who are quite different to each other, each bringing something unique to the table. In a truly effective team there will be potentially opposing views of the world and there will be healthy tension between different perspectives on how things should be done. In a flourishing team there is room for this to happen. Where there is trust, no-one feels threatened.

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of Team, positions trust as the foundation on which all great teams are built. He further differentiates between types of trust: predictive trust and vulnerability-based trust. Predictive trust is where you know someone long enough to be able to predict what they’ll do. You trust that you can anticipate their response to situations.  Whilst useful, this isn’t the type of trust that makes teams great. Vulnerability-based trust is, predictably enough, the trust that comes about when people on a team can be vulnerable with each other. When this type of trust is in place, people can ask for help, they can admit their wrong, they’re willing to provide feedback on potentially difficult issues and they’re willing to hear that type of feedback about themselves. Team members are willing to have conversations in a spirit of honesty, sincerity and good intention and are met, in-turn, with reciprocated honesty, sincerity and good intention. When people can be vulnerable, it changes the dynamics of a team completely, making it unstoppable.

Whilst everyone in a great team needs to be willing to be vulnerable, Lencioni maintains that the only way to achieve this is if the leader goes first. If the leader can’t be vulnerable, then the other team members are unlikely to trust that they can be so. Lencioni maintains that leaders have to be willing to show their vulnerability before others will trust that it is safe for them to show theirs. Leaders must be self-aware. They need to understand their strengths and how they use those strengths. They must be insightful about their short-comings and how they address these. They must be capable and willing to admit when they are wrong. They must be open to receiving uncomfortable feedback graciously, before their team will trust that they should do the same.

Once the conditions are set at a leadership level, all team members then have a responsibility to step up and pay their part in cultivating a culture of trust. This means that they too must have self-awareness, they too must have insight into their short-comings and they too must be prepared to put in the effort that is required to maintain a trusting environment. Everyone must believe that all team-mates are acting honestly, sincerely and with good intention. Once the trust is established, it provides a strong foundation for everything else.

Self-awareness is a tricky issue. It makes sense that people should understand themselves and their impact on others, but I often find it lacking. This is often where I focus on efforts when I work with teams, either leading, being part of or coaching them. Once people understand themselves they are better positioned to understand others and this helps to build a culture of respect and trust.  I also find it easier for trust to flourish when people are able to have fun together.

Whilst I agree with Lencioni that good leadership is a key ingredient, what about those situations where a clear leadership mandate does not rest with any one individual? In the example of team-based healthcare, where a range of different healthcare professionals may be required to form spontaneous teams to plan the best approach for a particular patient, who is responsible for setting the tone? My answer is that you can wait for someone to come in and set the tone or you can be proactive about playing your part in creating the right environment. This is where you get to see leadership qualities displayed irrespective of rank or whether the individuals concerned have a mandated leadership role. This is where the practicalities of “who is in charge?” become irrelevant and “what needs to be done?” becomes a unifying goal. Once we start asking the right question, everyone can contribute to the leadership of the group by playing their part in creating an environment which will enable the team to flourish. As my American colleagues would say, don’t wait for a memo to instruct you to start creating trust! Just step up and play your part!

Establishing trust, whilst important, is only the first step to creating a great team. There are a further four elements to Lencioni’s model, which proposes that a team will not function optimally if there is a fear of conflict, a lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. Each of these topics fascinates me, particularly the one relating to the fear of conflict, and I am sure I’ll be reflecting on each of them in future blogs. I’m also interested in exploring the concept of vulnerability because I’ve had some fascinating conversations about this in the last few days and am anticipating a guest blog next week which might stimulate some interesting reflections in this regard! So I know we will re-visit the topic of teams in future blogs. In the meantime, if you want know more about Lencioni’s model of teamwork, take a look at The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

 

Reflection time.

 

 

Are you part of a team? Teams can be found in the workplace, in sports, at home, in communities, in social circles … essentially anywhere you have groups of people working on something together.

Reflect on your team experiences. Think about a time when you have been part of a fabulous team (I am hoping that you have experienced this at some stage!). Compare this to a time when you worked in a poor team environment (I’m assuming most people have experienced this!). Reflect on the differences between these two in the context of trust. Does it hold true, in your experience, that there are low levels of trust in poorly performing teams?

If you are currently working within a team where there is a trusting environment, cherish it and make sure you play your part in keeping it that way. Don’t become complacent and assume trust will just flourish. Like anything worth having, it takes constant work and care to ensure that it is maintained. The effort is worth it when you are part of a team where great things happen.

If you work within a team where there is a lack of trust, it might be worth reflecting on what you could do to start nudging towards a more trusting atmosphere. I’d be interested in any reflections you have on how this can be achieved.

As always, thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to some interesting exchanges over the coming week 🙂

And check here for the latest update from Cicely Roche, who is guest blogging about her Ontario trip!

You attract what you are

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19th May 2017

This week I’m delighted to introduce our first guest blogger, Cicely Roche. I met Cicely, an esteemed pharmacy colleague, for coffee last week. During our conversation she mentioned that she was following my blog and that she was interested in figuring out how she might start blogging herself, particularly in light of an upcoming trip to Ontario which was bound to stimulate new learning. The problem was she didn’t have  anytime to figure out how to set it up in advance of her trip.

Naturally, given my interest in blogging, learning and pharmacy, I was delighted to hear this and suggested that she could start by blogging through reflections.ie as a guest blogger until she got herself set up. It would enable her to dip a toe in the blogging water without having to set anything up immediately. She was happy that this would get her started and I was happy to help her on her journey.

Therefore, I am delighted to introduce Cicely Roche as our first guest blogger and her blog can be read here. I’m looking forward to reading about her experiences in Ontario.

This interaction prompted me to reflect on the new types of conversations that I have been having with people since I started blogging. Some people have shared their interest in writing with me and have even sent me excerpts of their writing, which are always lovely to receive. Others have contacted me to discuss the topics about which I have written. A few have provided tips and suggestions and have pointed me in the direction of writing festivals and web-sites which could help me develop my writing skills. I’m now attracting conversations about topics I really adore and the ironic fact is that, quite often, I’m having these new conversations with people I have known for years but with whom these topics never arose. Some have even revealed other personas that they use for the purposes of writing. In all the time that I was thinking about blogging and dithering over whether it was a silly idea or not, I was surrounded by people who had similar interests and ideas. These people are connecting with me now that they see me acting in this space. This leads me to the idea that you attract what you are, not what you want.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you could simply attract what you want? Rather inconveniently the world around you reacts to who and what you are, not who and what you want to be. Ghandhi is often quoted as saying “Be the difference you want to see in the world”. Notwithstanding the fact that this is apparently not quite what he said (see here for the accurate quote), my reflection on the last week has led me to understand how true the sentiment is.

 

Reflection time

 

 

Is there anything you can learn by reflecting on this? Are there ways that you can proactively move closer to the things you want? My first blog, What’s stopping you?, might help you reflect on how you could do this. Whilst the first steps might be daunting it is very rewarding to see the universe respond! (without wishing to sound too philosophical!)

Finally, is blogging something that you would like to try? I’m delighted to help people get started if they’d like dip their toe in the water here. Just get in touch and let me know if you’d like to give it a shot. There’s always the option of writing under a pseudonym if that feels easier.

Learning how to Learn

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A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the world of MOOCs; Massive Online Open Courses. They are exactly as the name suggests… online training programmes which have unlimited participation and which are available for open access on the web. There are a growing number of organisations that provide access to large catalogues of MOOCs such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity, to name but a few. These catalogues are a mecca for learning, providing easy, free access to courses in a wide range of subjects across the arts, humanities, engineering, mathematics, sciences (social, health or otherwise) and personal development.

I love learning and was thrilled to discover this treasure trove of online courses available free of charge. I imagined that I might become conversant in Mandarin Chinese or perhaps take a course in Dog Emotion and Cognition before moving onto the grittier stuff like Particle Physics!  Well, not quite. Roll forward two years and I have only managed one course, “Learning how to Learn”! This course completely changed my thinking on learning … and ironically ended my relationship with MOOC courses!

The title, “Learning how to Learn”, caught my eye because I wondered what there was to learn about learning. I expected a course full of memory exercises or strategies for studying. To my surprise, I discovered that notwithstanding a modestly successful education track-record, there was much that I didn’t understand about the process of learning! I grew up in an education system that rewarded accurate recall of information and my learning strategy was always to memorise as much information as I could as accurately as I could. This meant that I was pretty focused throughout my studies spending endless hours sitting at desks reading information and repeating it to myself in an effort to commit it to memory. What I discovered through the “Learning how to Learn” MOOC is that there are two modes of thinking, referred to in the course as the focused mode and the diffuse mode. I realised that throughout most of my formal education journey I had almost exclusively used a focused mode of thinking. It was only during my postgraduate studies that I gained some experience in using a more diffuse mode approach, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. The diffuse mode allows us to look at things broadly and lets information filter through our brain so that new neural connections can be made and new ways of thinking can evolve. What surprised me is the fact that neuro-scientists strongly suspect that you are either in a diffuse mode or a focused mode of thinking – you can’t be in both modes at the same time. Being in one mode limits access to the other mode’s way of thinking. Therefore we need to have strategies that allow us to benefit from both modes. That’s not something that I had ever factored into all my years of education, which were spent predominately in focused mode.

Why is this interesting? Well it has lots of implications for how I now choose to learn. Having spent about twenty years of my life learning within the formal primary, secondary and third-level education settings, I had never recognised the importance of a diffuse mode of thinking. Focused learning was the modus operandi. Now that I understand more about learning I’ve come to realise that I don’t need to do more courses to satisfy my thirst for learning. Instead I’m learning to use my diffuse mode a bit more. This means that I have to make a conscious decision to step away from focused learning and create the opportunity for my brain to formulate new ideas and connections between the information that’s already in there…. which leads me to the topic of reflection! Wikipedia defines reflective practice as the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. (I know, I shouldn’t be referencing Wikipedia but I don’t have time to go more in-depth and this is just a blog, not a peer-reviewed article!) Whilst I always intuitively understood the importance of reflection, I hadn’t appreciated how it allowed the brain to use information in a different way which leads to growth and learning.

Some might conclude from this that our education system is fundamentally flawed because it is too focussed on, well, focussed learning. I’m not sure that I would go that far. Education systems originally evolved from the desire to provide people with fundamental skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic. They were never, in my opinion, intended to be systems that shaped the entire person. Throughout the ages society, family environments, social circles and local communities have played important roles in supporting and shaping the upcoming generations. I believe that this should still be the case. I recognise the challenge that my childrens’ teachers face as they endeavour to teach classes of about 25 students in the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. I recognise that they have to cater for all needs – from those of the children who struggle to grasp the basics to those of the children who are under-challenged and who are never stretched in a way that helps them to realise their full potential. I recognise that as a parent I have an important role in educating my children through the conversations I have with them, the experiences to which I expose them and, most importantly, through the example I set for them. And I learn lots in this process too. That’s why I’ve resisted the urge to acquire more information  through the world of MOOCs and instead am affording myself the time and space to reflect on the world around me through a more diffuse mode of thinking. For now, this is providing the most interesting learning journey of all.

 

Reflection time.

 

Are you aware of the world of MOOCs, offering free, online training programmes? They are an attractive option for anyone with a thirst for knowledge. I frequently meet people who bemoan the fact that it’s difficult to find training courses in their locality that are of interest to them. Well, you have no more excuses!

More generally, have you ever thought about how you learn? Do you give yourself enough time to reflect and to let your brain learn through a more diffuse mode of thinking?

And finally, how are you contributing to the development of upcoming generations? We all have a responsibility to support the learning journey of the young people in our communities and in our society. We can’t expect the education system to do everything! How do you inspire or impact positively on the young people with whom you interact? Are you role modeling the behaviours we want to see from the younger generations when we’re old? By the way, Trinity College Dublin have a nice MOOC on strategies for successful aging! I must take a look at that sometime!

On a different note, there will be a new development at www.reflections.ie over the next few weeks when you will start to see the appearance of guest blogs! All will be revealed soon!

 

Here comes the wobble!

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I knew it would come at some stage; the wobble which always comes soon after I start something new.

My wobbles generally happen shortly after I make a decision and are characterised by self-doubt which causes me to question, or even abandon, the decision I have made. I have come to learn that there is no logic to my wobbles and they happen irrespective of how trivial or serious the decision. I experience a wobble when I start a new job or when I take on a new challenge. I can even experience a wobble after I make a choice on a restaurant menu when I invariably wonder if I should have picked something different. I experienced wobbles when I got married! (Not about the choice of husband of course, but about whether I should have gotten married at all!)  I experience wobbles every time I start a new fitness regime or new dietary discipline, to the point of wobbling off track. And now I’m having the wobbles about starting this blogging lark!

I know I’m starting to wobble about blogging because I find myself thinking things like “Why the hell am I doing this?”, “Why didn’t I listen to all the people who told me that writing about something every week was unrealistic?”, “What if people think I’m a fool to be doing this? Worse still, what if I actually AM a fool?!” “What if people don’t like what I write?” My original, positive outlook on blogging is being ambushed from all sides by worries and doubts which make me want to run away.

But Wobble…I have been expecting you and I’m ready for you!

The secret, I find, for dealing with wobbles, is to anticipate them. When I was younger, I pondered over wobble-driven doubts and worries and often let them get into the driving seat and take over. Now I know that the wobble will come and I pre-empt it by being clear on what’s driving my decision. It’s kind of like being on a roller-coaster in those moments when you are making the slow ascent to the top of the ride gathering potential energy, anticipating the dramatic plummet. That’s always a “Why the hell am I doing this?” moment for me! There is no option of getting off a roller-coaster half way through, so I deal with the “why the hell?” moment before I ever get set foot on the ride! I look at the roller-coaster and gauge whether I think the ride is worth that “why the hell” moment or not. If it is, I go on the ride, knowing that there will be moments where I’ll regret it but that overall it will be great fun. If the ride doesn’t look one I’ll enjoy, I steer clear. Why put myself through something I won’t enjoy?

With blogging, I anticipated the wobble and was ready for it. The first step was to be clear with myself about why I was doing this. I gave some of my reasons in my first post, but here’s a more comprehensive list

  • I believe in the value of reflection and want to invest time in the process.
  • Through my day-job I can see that many people struggle with reflection and I work with a team to encourage and support people with this. This blog is an extension of that work albeit it from a very different angle.
  • I enjoy writing but have consistently failed to make the space for it in my schedule. Deadlines work better for me, so a public deadline of a weekly blog helps me to prioritise it.
  • I hope that I can evolve my writing style and through blogging perhaps I might receive some critical appraisal on my writing or challenge of my thinking.
  • The public aspect of blogging forces me to be more considered in my writing than if I was writing a personal journal.
  • I can see that blogging is an important form of communication in our modern world and I want to both understand and participate in it rather than be left behind.
  • I have thought about this for years and I am interested to see if I have as much to say as I think I do.
  • My Dad has, for years, suggested that I should write a book. This blog allows me to dip a toe in the writing world without the full commitment of a publication (Although, for the record Dad, technically my doctoral thesis is a book. Who said I don’t listen to you?!)

Reminding myself of all the motivating factors helps me to dispel some of the doubts and negative thoughts. It certainly helps answer the question “Why the hell am I doing this?” As for some of the other doubts… well, if people don’t read or like my blogs, that’s fine. They can ignore them. I’m not doing this to accumulate thousands of followers or to rack up the “likes”, so no pressure there. As for the other fears, of being a fool or running out of things to say? Well, in the scheme of things, they are first world problems. In fact, the whole thing is one big first world problem. Who really cares if I stop blogging when I run out of things to say? What difference does it really make? In the context of global issues, does my piddly little blog really matter at all? That’s when I say, “get over yourself Catriona and spare your worry for something that really matters!”

 

Reflection time.

 

I think most of us experience wobbles. Over the past week, I have talked to several people who have similar experiences about different issues. One friend is making a big life change and can power through the wobbles because of her ambition for what she wants her life to be like. Another friend has started a big project and is wobbling because of the discomfort of the short-term sacrifices which are needed for a much longer-term benefit. Another friend wobbles every time she has to speak at a conference.

Reflect on times when you have wobbled (If you have never experienced a wobble, please use the comment box to tell me how you managed that!).

What strategies have you used that were effective in powering through a wobble? Can you replicate these in the future?

Can you identify reactions that were unhelpful? How can you avoid repeating this behaviour in future?

Finally, what can you learn from reflecting on your past experiences? Are there patterns to your wobbles?  Are there things you can do to prevent them?

As for me, the wobble I never seem to be able to power through is the one I have when I see pastries and chocolates which will push me past my weight-watchers point limit. I suspect it’s going to take a bit more than reflection to sort that one out!

Ninjas and fairies … Does it matter what people think?

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Last week I had an experience that prompted interesting reflection for me about the importance I attach to what other’s think of me. My little girl was invited to a fancy-dress birthday party for a 6-year-old friend.  Normally these parties involve a mix of girls who dress as princesses or fairies and boys who dress as superheroes or villains. My daughter has, thus far, shown no interest in princesses or fairies and has always joined the boys in the superhero camp. Sometimes its Spiderman, other times the Hulk. Last week she was a ninja.

When we arrived at the party we were greeted by a squealing sea of sparkly, excited princesses, including the mother of the party-girl! Unlike all previous parties, there were no boys. Suddenly this made my little ninja, dressed from head to toe in black and sparring imaginary adversaries, so much more conspicuous. The biggest of the fairies (the party-girl’s Mum!), to be fair, took this in her stride and was delighted to welcome a ninja to the party. The little ninja herself dived into the fairy sea with a nonchalant wave goodbye to me. I must admit, for all that I love her spunky, funky nature, in that moment as I left her I wished she liked princess dresses … not because I want her to be like everyone else but because I know that being different can be difficult.

I pride myself in swimming against the tide. I’m not that bothered by what people think of me … or at least that’s what I tell myself. Why then, did it bother me when I saw my little girl standing out from her counterparts? Why was my stomach churning and my mind constantly straying back to her for the next two hours while she partied and I fretted?

At the simplest level, it was probably just maternal instinct kicking in … a desire to protect my little girl. I imagined that maybe she might realise that she was different from her friends which might upset her or that the princesses might keep their distance from this scary little ninja. In truth it probably reminded me too much of times when I didn’t feel like I fit in and reignited old insecurities. I have always felt a bit like a square peg in a round hole and, whilst I’ve come to embrace my “squareness” as I’ve grown older, it was quite the inconvenience when I was younger.  I never felt particularly interested in the sorts of things in which other people seem interested. As a teenager, conversations between my peers about the latest pop sensation or hottest actor always left me baffled because it seemed at the time that it was a teenager’s job to care about those things and I just didn’t. From school to college to the workplace, I never quite felt like I fit in and, to be frank, I didn’t like that feeling. I wanted to be like everyone else who seemed normal so I wouldn’t feel so odd. Unlike my little ninja, I didn’t have the courage to be who I wanted to be. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew who I wanted to be. As a result, I spent most of my time trying to fit in and trying to be interested in things in which I wasn’t interested rather than figuring out what I did like for myself. Maybe that’s the way most people spend their early years. Maybe we all go around feeling out of place. Maybe some people are just better than others at looking like they know what they’re about. As I grew older I began to understand more about what drove me and to understand my purpose and that certainly made it easier to feel comfortable on occasions when I stuck out from the crowd. I have huge admiration for people who aren’t afraid to buck the trend or go against the grain in the interests of being themselves … like my little ninja.

As I think about this issue, I am reminded of the book The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. The book opens with a simplified explanation of brain function, focusing on the evolved, frontal (Human) brain functions and the more primitive, limbic (Chimp) brain functions and the remainder of the book provides guidance on how to reconcile the constant struggle between the Human and the Chimp. One of our primitive (Chimp) urges is to seek safety, which can usually be found in groups or troops. The best way to fit into a troop is to be as similar as possible to the other members of the troop, reducing the chance of rejection. So perhaps the desire to fit-in has its roots in a primitive urge?  Peters proposes that managing your impulsive and emotional Chimp as an adult will be one of the biggest factors in determining how successful you are in life. As I’ve grown older and discovered who I am, the anxiety associated with not fitting in has certainly eased. Maybe that’s how it happens for everyone? I look at the younger generations today who seem to have oodles of confidence and self-awareness and I am in awe. Are they really that confident? Or do lots of them feel like square pegs in round holes too and just do a much better job than I ever did in covering it up? It seems to me that there is a much greater acceptance of people being different these days. Being nerdy now appears to be cool. Young people don’t seem to be afraid to stand out from the crowd. As a society are we becoming more accepting of difference? Are my reactions to “being different” just remnants of an old-fashioned view of the world?

As for my little ninja, when I collected her from her party and tentatively asked her how it went I received an enthusiastic “Awesome Mum, very awesome”. Awesome indeed.

 

Time for reflection

 

This experience prompted me to reflect on how my reactions have changed as I’ve gotten older. I live a pretty conventional life …  but I like to think that I can be pretty unconventional when I want to be. I found great freedom when I stopped caring about trying to fit in with everyone else, but it certainly felt a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. It also prompted me to wonder if maybe there are times when I still shy away from being different? And most importantly, how do I make sure that my hang-ups don’t influence my little girl’s view of the world.

Are there times when you change your behaviour for the sake of fitting in? Sometimes this is a necessary part of maintaining harmonious relationships within the workplace or the home. But might there be times when you compromise too much for the sake of fitting in? Only you will know! And sometimes it doesn’t have to be one or the other. A ninja princess could be an interesting option!