Friday, 4 January 2019

There isn't a rule, one way or formula

I'm sorry, but it makes me laugh when people say in order to be happy or successful or achieve goals you have to be this and you have to do that.

Like there's only one true way to go about it.

Like if you follow this exact pattern you will succeed and if you don't you won't.

There are definitely things we can say tend to work better for most people, other things that tend to not work so well and models that tend to be helpful; but when people cling on to such rigid rules and structures, I just see all the people who broke those rules and were happy and successful anyway and all those who followed the rules and still aren't.

I believe in models and observations and experimentation but not rules.

Then again, if I turned my experience into a set of rules for other people, I'd be making the same mistake.

By all means let's share ideas and tips with each other but let's not fall for the illusion of rules, rigid structures and falsely predictable if-then outcomes.

Life is yin and yang. Some people make a rule that you must have great, big, enormous, painful goals to succeed; and others make a rule that you must not set goals to live spiritually free.

There's some truth in both.

Life is rich in paradoxes.

Or are they not really paradoxes but examples of yin-yang cyclicism?

Some people could do with a goal or two, to be honest. Some people could do with no goals or less. It all depends on where we are right now and what nourishes our soul right now. Sometimes, it's time for doing, sometimes it's time for letting go.

Whilst it would be a mistake to turn this observation into a rule too, it often turns out that people who are addicted to goals actually don't need more goals, they need a holiday from goals; and people addicted to doing nothing sometimes, just sometimes, could do with a bit more structure. It's like a water mixer. It's not about absolute hot, absolute cold or even absolute middle. It's about turning the tap up a bit and down a bit as we need.

(Even spiritual practice might require some planning, discipline and structure.)

So, screw rules.

Feel where you are and turn the tap appropriately.

But don't make a rule out if that!

Wishing you health and happiness,


Friday, 7 December 2018

We often think we need practical answers when what we really need is to discharge

Today, I just want to share a reflection.

Often, when people reach out to a coach or a therapist, they think what they need is practical techniques to answer questions like these:

"I need to stop over-thinking, but how do I actually do that?"

"How do I stop criticising myself?"

"How do I make myself have more positive thoughts?"

Well, I'm not saying there aren't practical techniques that can be applied, but often, what we really need is not what we think we need and in my experience, practical techniques for things like these are rarely satisfactory. They often just set up more frustration later, when it looks like it didn't work.

"How do I take on my mind and win?"

That's what such questions start to sound like. How can I answer that and know at the same time that we are not really separate from our mind?

What if it's not about taking on your mind and winning anyway? What if the path to a more peaceful life is something more tangential?

Let me share what actually happens in a well facilitated session. I need to speak metaphorically to express this.

It's like we walk into such sessions like a battery charged up with negative energy. We come in wanting to know the secret of taking on our minds and winning. We're ready to apply all our negative energy into that venture.

Frustratingly, the coach or therapist doesn't tell us how to take on our minds and win. Instead, they hold a hypnotic thinking space open. They coach us to express. They gently enquire.

We express. We articulate. We emote. As we unravel our own thinking, the battery discharges. It's like an emotional cleansing. We become more peaceful. We see more clearly. We see something we didn't see before, something enlightening about how to be that we can't really express in words.

I often hear about how people found their coaching sessions draining but something wordless yet magical happened in the feeling of that negative energy draining away. There wasn't an intellectual answer to their questions, only a felt one.

Sometimes, that's what coaching seems like to me: a grounding earth rod to discharge all the negative energy away; to emotionally cleanse and create the space for clarity and insight.

The path is rarely to answer the question raised from the problem frame of mind.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Friday, 30 November 2018

Sometimes life is about pushing more, sometimes it's about pushing less

My friend Chris once said life is the yin and the yang. I saw it. A dance between the active and the passive; between being the guide and the guided; between being the mover and the moved.

It seems to me our passage through life is a dance between doing and allowing. Sometimes it's time to do more. You're not going to build that business or write that book from the couch. Sometimes, though, it's time to allow more—to stop pushing against the resistance and allow life to guide you, rather than you guide it.

Peaceful wisdom knows exactly when to do each.

Fragile ego chooses poorly.

As a tip, I can only say this, though I've found it a profound guide in my life:

When we feel spiritual and emotional wellness—smoothness, like we're dancing in time with life, carry on.

When we feel spiritual and emotional illness—resistance, like we're dancing out of time with life, stop and take a moment. It may be a signal that it's time to change between doing more and allowing more.

It can go both ways. If we're being too passive, that feeling can be a call to get more active. If we're being too active, that feeling can be a call to get more passive.

Like I said, peaceful wisdom knows. The ego gets it wrong. If the ego is telling us we need to push more, we probably need to push less. If the ego is telling us we need to push less, we probably need to push more. Stopping and taking a moment is what allows wisdom to speak. It knows.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Monday, 26 November 2018

When I share about life, it's not because I'm a guru

When I share about life, it's not because I'm a guru or an expert or in any way superior, because I'm not. I'm just as flawed as anyone. It's just that as someone who coaches, someone who is coached, and someone who reads and listens to the words of the wise, one gets to see everyday things from a different perspective; from a perspective we don't generally get to see for ourselves when we're within our own thinking. I'm no guru, it's just that sometimes what one sees is worth sharing.

Monday, 19 November 2018

We need to cut blame, shame and judgement out of our narratives about success

"Don't blame your lack of success on the world," they said.

They were right, in the sense there's no point blaming the world, other people or the weather for why things aren't working out for us. The problem is, the obvious turnaround is that we should blame ourselves instead, but there's no point doing that either.

Look, if things aren't working out, the only thing we can do more powerful than hope is change what we're doing now. It is down to us.

The thing is, though, there's a truth to success that a lot of old school coaches don't want to admit to: you can do everything right and still fail.

You see, unless we're talking about a simple goal like building a wall, which requires no cooperation from anyone or anything, there's going to be factors outside your control.

Take getting a job.

You can have your goal, you can have a plan, you can write your CV, you can register on the job listing sites and you can religiously apply for every job you find, every day, and present yourself well at every interview.

There are at least three factors in the results you'll get that are just not up to you. The first is what jobs are available. The second is who else you are competing with. The third and most crucial thing that just isn't up to you is the hiring manager's decisions. You can influence them, but you can't make them.

There is a point you have to surrender and let what is out of your hands take you over the line or not.

The smarter you work, the luckier you get.

Yes! But you can't deny there are still factors that are simply not up to you and you can still do everything right and fail.

What's worse, but it's real so get over it, is you can still do everything right and fail, then look over your shoulder and see someone doing everything wrong and succeed. You can persevere dilgently for years and see someone else score first time.

Sometimes the other guy gets the job even though you know you're better.

When that happens, what's the point of blame and shame? Seriously.

If there's a new play in town looking for someone to play the lead part and twenty actors audition, nineteen are not going to get selected no matter how good they are and no matter how perfectly they went about getting the audition.

If ten tins of beans sit proudly on the shop shelf, they're already doing as much as they can to be selected. If only nine people are shopping for beans that day, one tin isn't going to get selected and it means absolutely nothing about how good that tin is or its strategy for getting picked. It might not get picked the next day either and it still means nothing.

In fact, here's one of my rules of life:

You're going to get lots of rejection and it means absolutely nothing about you, your goals or your worth in the world.

The problem with blame and shame is they both lack love. They don't make us more successful, they just make failures more painful and they make us needy and desperate, two states that pretty much always work against us.

In fact, let's also kick out the word 'failure', because we've only truly failed in any venture when we give up or die.

Look, sometimes we screw up and we can see that's why we didn't win that time. Okay, so look at it, learn and do something differently, but don't insist on beating yourself first.

For as long as you're doing the best you know and are willing to keep learning, quit it with the narratives about blame and shame. Stop looking at the next person and comparing. Stop judging yourself.

Walk in peace and compassion.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Friday, 16 November 2018

Let's stop teaching people they have a static learning style

Learning is about correlating your faculties, not leaning on one.

Has anybody ever told you that you have a visual learning style? Or an auditory one? Or a kinaesthetic one?

We need to stop teaching people they have a static learning style of this type and put the focus back on stretching all our sensory abilities and our ability to correlate them.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for being self aware; of knowing our strengths; and of applying our strengths rather than suffering our weaknesses. I'm also all for being aware of those strengths and weaknesses in the context of teaching. Some people, for instance, are stronger with their visual abilities than their auditory abilities.


A lot of people hear their learning style as a limitation. I want to cry every time I hear someone say they can't learn to do something, "because I'm a visual learner, not an auditory learner." This is one of the ways labels can be traps.

It gets distorted into rules and mantras like, "We have to teach the visual kids visually."

No worthy task is completed inside one representation system.

Learning is not a visual or an auditory or a kinaesthetic task. It is a visual and an auditory and a kinaesthetic task.

Just as heavy lifting is not an arms or a legs or a back task, it is an arms and a legs and a back task.

Indeed, intelligence might be linked to how flexibly we are able to use all our sensory systems together, so rather than teaching people they have a visual learning style, or an auditory one; and that this style dictates how they need to learn everything; how about we put the emphasis back on adaptability and flexibility?

Driving, for example, is about learning to correlate visual and auditory and kinaesthetic information very quickly. The sight-reading musician also has to learn how to correlate visual and auditory and kinaesthetic information simultaneously, just in different ways.

My strategy for learning complex systems starts with a flow diagram. I'll trace the various flows with my finger and my lips and head moving like I'm talking to myself. I am. Every so often I'll stop and gaze into the distance while I visualise a large 3-D moving model and test if that feels right. That's a multi-sensory process.

At this point, I want to invoke Gregory Bateson's Logical Levels of Learning, which tell us what's better than having a single learning strategy for all tasks is to have a variety of learning strategies; and what's even better than that is to have a variety of strategies for learning a variety of learning strategies. Call that meta-learning if you will: learning how to learn.

It's all about variety and flexibility.

Besides, sometime we have to be the flexible ones. Sometimes we have to adapt to the task, because the task cannot adapt to us. Good luck learning to swim with an auditory strategy!

We need to stretch all the faculties. How? Stretch the auditory by teaching music. Stretch the kinaesthetic by teaching dance. Stretch the visual by teaching art. Stretch the internal reasoning by teaching mathematics and logic. And so on.

One of the implications of this is why arts are important. Arts stretch our sensory faculties. Stretching our sensory faculties increases our intelligence.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Thursday, 15 November 2018

Personality types can be helpful, but they can also be a trap

How labels can become thinking traps

Is personality real? It's a partly philosophical question.

On the one hand, personality cannot be real, because personality is not a thing. You can't put personality into a wheel barrow, as they say. Personality a thought construct. Thought constructs aren't real, they're only a simulation of reality.

That doesn't mean they're necessarily a bad simulation of reality, though. You see, on the other hand, we do each exhibit a psychological make up: a set of predictable, recurring ways that we respond to the world. We know some people enjoy public speaking and some people hate it. Some people are the life and soul of the party and others withdraw. These responses tend to be consistent, not haphazard. It's proven in practice that it can be useful to recognise those patterns and interact with people according to the implications of those patterns.

There's a phrase which encapsulates this:

"A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness."
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933)

Let's start, then, with that understanding: that "personality" is illusory, yet also to some extent useful. Now I'd like to explore how personality types can both lead us and mislead us.

Representation systems as personality types

A lot of pop-psychology about personality types is a distortion of something that came from the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP brought our attention to how people use their visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (feeling) faculties in their thinking, learning and decision making. We call these faculties the representation systems.

The full list:

  • Visual (V), seeing and imagination
  • Auditory (A), hearing, sounds
  • Kinaesthetic (K), touch, feeling, sensation
  • Olfactory (O), smell
  • Gustatory (G), taste and, some say, gut experience

We also commonly refer to auditory digital (AD), which is a sub-category of auditory for auditory symbols: words, numbers and "self talk" rather than, say, abstract sounds like the sound of the wind or the sound of burning embers.

In my first introduction to NLP, I was told to listen to the words people used and decide which NLP personality type they were. If they used a lot of hearing words like, "That sounds like a good idea," they were auditory. If they used a lot of seeing words like, "That looks like a good idea," they were visual. If they used a lot of feeling words like, "That feels right," they were kinaesthetic.

Then, I was told, if you spoke to so-called visual people with lots of seeing words, you connected, but if you spoke to them with lots of hearing or feeling words, you wouldn't.

That's a over-simplistic reduction. Let's dig deeper.

Good NLP certainly talks about noticing people's use of so-called "see-hear-feel" language. If they see what you're saying, you can see what they're saying back and that tends to strengthen rapport. Listening to "see-hear-feel" language helps us figure out people's thinking processes and streamline our communication with them. If they make sense of a complex diagram by talking themselves through it, that's a clue about how we can best help learn a new complex system.

From this comes the idea of Preferred Representation System (PRS).

It's very unlikely that a person has exercised all their sensory faculties equally. Physically and cognitively, what we stretch most gets stronger and what's stronger gets used more. People may exhibit a preferred representation system.

We shouldn't be surprised if an artistic painter as a particularly strong visual faculty and a strong visual-kinaesthetic pairing, because they get exercised a lot in that activity.

We shouldn't be surprised if a logician has a strong auditory-digital or that a composer has a strong auditory and a strong auditory-kinaesthetic pairing.

That doesn't mean the preferred representation system the only one they can use or relate with. What good NLP teaches is that peoples' use of their V, A, K, O and G resources is dynamic, not static. Everybody uses all their representation systems all the time and it's how each is used that's more interesting than what's preferred.

A car buyer, for example, may first be attracted to shape and colour, but once they're past the attraction threshold, to cross the buying line, it may be the sound and the feeling from driving it they have to like. That tells us how to customise our presentation of a car and how to know when to switch between emphasising the visual and emphasising the auditory/kinaesthetic.

Someone might have a preference for, say, the visual representation system and you could loosely call them, "a visual person", but that's not as interesting as figuring out how they use all the representation systems together.

To take the label too seriously is limiting, as is to infer any rules from it, because...

Labels can be traps

The book Frogs Into Princes (Bandler, Grinder) says, "Labels are traps". Personally, I'd refine that just slightly and say, "they can be". You see, I don't rule out the possibility that there might be good profiling tools. As a coach, I find the Enneagram a good reference guide for choosing useful meditations, inquiries and tasks.

Anyway, here's how labels can be traps:

Deciding someone "is" some personality type is to make a generalisation about them. Generalisations distort our perceptions. They make us see what we expect to see and miss what's really there.

I believe that interpersonal work is at it's best when we're as free from expectation as we can be. That way, we can better notice what's happening. That doesn't mean not having knowledge about the person. It just means opening our perceptions up to see what's actually happening and not just what we expect to happen.

Meta Programs as personality types

The phrase 'Meta Programs' is NLP parlance for the predictable, over-arching patterns in our behaviour. One of the Meta Programs, for example, is called motivation direction. A towards direction means you get motivated when attracted to something you like. An away from direction means you get motivated when repelled by something you don't like.

I've never been a big fan of using Meta Programs as a Myers-Briggs type of personality profile, though I accept it's commonly done and probably works reasonably well much of the time. I guess you could say it's a good heuristic but we can do better than that.

A woman once insisted to me that she was away from. I asked her how she knew. She told me it was because she'd done a questionnaire asking what typically made her change her job and car. She gave answers which divined her as "away from". I asked, "So what would you have been if the question had been, 'What made you open your Christmas presents on Christmas morning?'"

You see, it's not that someone is a towards or away from person. It's that you can track predictable patterns of towards-ness and away-from-ness in their behaviour.

As I like to say, it works better to think about Meta Programs in terms of when rather than what: when people respond towards and when they respond away from.

For these reasons I prefer what a number of leading NLP thinkers are saying today: it's about tracking patterns rather than diagnosing a static personality type. Also, to track what the person actually does rather than how they answer questionnaires. That's because ...

Questionnaires can be unreliable

What people do unconsciously may be different to what they think they do when they answer a questionnaire, even if they think they're answering honestly.

Someone I knew once profiled herself as towards, which she felt was better than away from. Her exact words were, "I'm a towards person, because what motivates me is getting great results, because I don't want to be like the non-achievers in the team". Read that again. She remembered herself as towards in line with her preferred self image, even though her language revealed a more fundamental away from driver.

We tend to innocently, unconsciously re-frame our experiences to match our preferred self image, as had happened here.

There's also the problem of Confirmation Bias, which predicts that we perceive information in a way that confirms of our beliefs. If we have a preferred self image we might remember ourselves in a way that confirms that bias.

The duality of elicitation and installation

This is a side bar, a philosophical question for you to ponder. When you give someone a questionnaire and tell them it makes them, say, a visual, or a towards person, is that a discovery of what's really there? Or is it an implanted suggestion?

How it's possible we could be deluding ourselves when we decide our profile readings are accurate

I once raised these points with someone who really believed not only in Meta Programs based profiling, but on various other profiles, including handwriting profiles and astrological profiles. His objection was, "But every profile got my personality exactly right!"

There's a well known experiment in Psychology by professor Hans Eysenck in which he tested whether astrology provided accurate predictions of personality. He asked a large group of astrology students to take a personality test and see if the results conformed to Astrological types. Remarkably, they did! However, when he repeated the experiment with people who didn't believe they had an astrological type, the results showed no correlation.

Does this mean the astrology students answered the test dishonestly? Does it mean their belief in astrology had actually influenced their personality? It's unclear from what I know of the experiment. Maybe that was determined, maybe it wasn't.

There is also the Pygmalion Effect, which predicts that people tend to achieve the results expected of them. They actually change to match the expectation.

These effects could account for why people tend to perceive their personality profiles as accurate even when they are not; and how personality readings could be actually changing our behaviour rather than just reading it.

Yet another factor is that some personality readings language so vague that they seem to fit anyone. Perhaps the predictions offered by certain profiling tools are not that dissimilar. Anyone who has studied hypnosis and universal pacing statements will recognise it's relatively easy to say something that's actually really vague but seems really specific to the listener.

"You're a kind person at heart even if you don't always show it and you try hard at things you like but you get frustrated with other people sometimes." Did I read your personality correctly?

In a nutshell ...

Don't be fooled into thinking that NLP is about diagnosing people with static personality types. That's an age-old error. Learn to track the dynamics of what people do, not label them with a static type. And I mean what they really do, not what they think they do.

The really short version is this: labels are traps.

Wishing you health and happiness,