Seeing is believing

Even though each retreat day has a set program and we practice each part of those programs, every retreat day is different. There’s no telling before the start of a day how a particular group will respond to the program we plan. How each day will play out is, to a certain extent, unpredictable. 

To prepare for a day, there are different techniques we rely on. As I noted, we practice each activity or element that composes a retreat program. We also reflect at the end of each day how the program went, so that next time we’re running it we’re aware of ways we can do it even better.

But there’s one technique that I have found extremely helpful. In the lead up to a day, I imagine myself running the different parts of the day. The night before I’ll imagine myself doing my introduction. As I get ready the morning before, I think about how I’ll interact with the group and about my crowd control techniques. When I’m driving to the school or venue, I imagine how the group will respond to the tone and pace of my voice during different parts of the program.

More than just thinking or imagining each part, I try to see it in my mind. I visualise the day.

It’s a technique I learned playing basketball in high school, where I would visualise the things I would need to do for our team to win. I even use visualisation to prepare for an exam. I see myself in the exam room, with the exam paper on the desk in front of me. I visualise my response to seeing the exam questions when I first open the paper. I even visualise flicking to the right part of my textbook for an answer to the question (these were open book exams).

Self-help gurus have bandied around the term visualisation for a long time, spouting the belief that "if you see it, you can achieve it!" But there's actually more to visualisation than just imagining yourself winning the lottery. There's actually a considerable amount of science and research behind this practice, which is why so many coaches, scientists, psychologists and researchers recommend visualising.

Firstly though, what is visualisation? Put simply, its the process of seeing or imagining the desired outcome. Such imagining actually helps us achieve a positive outcome. It's the brain science behind the technique that makes visualising so effective. What happens in your brain when you visualise is that neurones interpret the image as an experience. New neural pathways develop, training your brain in the action before you actually attempt it. Your brain is literally prepared for the action and has processes in place for accomplishing it. Now, there are two ways of visualising: outcome visualisation and process visualisation.

Outcome visualisation involves seeing the final outcome you want to achieve, such as what you'd look like at your goal weight, or crossing the finish line of a marathon. You visualise what it would look like and what it would feel like. The feeling generated from this visualisation creates motivation and inspiration that actually drive you towards the desired outcome.

However, researchers have found an issue with outcome visualisation: the planning fallacy. Basically, things often don't go according to plan. Even our most thought out plans are subject to the randomness of life. Outcome visualisation doesn't account for what could happen, so when obstacles or setbacks crop up, they can be bigger stumbling blocks in attaining the desired outcome.

This is why researchers have found the second method of visualisation to be more effective. Process visualisation imagines each of the steps involved in attaining the desired outcome. For example, a study was conducted on students preparing for an exam. Some of the students engaged in outcome visualisation, i.e. they saw themselves doing well on the exam. The remaining students visualised the process: they imagined the study and preparation they would need to do. Because they had visualised the process, they were more motivated to engage in preparation practices. This resulted in the second group of students being more prepared for the test and having reduced anxiety.

We can see that process visualisation works because the neural pathways you build develop contingencies for things that could go wrong, where outcome visualisation only trains the brain for accomplishing the goal. Process visualisation trains the brain in the individual skills or components that will prime you in attaining the final desired outcome.

But how do you visualise? Is it as simple as seeing different situations in your mind? Simply, yes. However, our minds are more complicated than that, and might not be accustomed to holding things in the imagination. There are ways to practice though.

  1. Start by visualising inanimate objects, like an apple or chair. As you visualise the object, imagine all its different properties, its feel, any sounds it might make, does it have a taste, what does it smell like? 
  2. After you've tried this a few times, try visualising a friend or family member. Again, visualise as many details as you can. What sort of clothes are they wearing, what do they sound like, what would be the sort of things they would talk about, can you smell their perfume or cologne? 
  3. Then try to visualise a setting, a place that you've been to before or is important to you. Again, remember all the details that make it important to you.

Adding visualisation to your morning routine is a powerful way to approach the success and outcomes you want for your life, work and relationships. Seeing really is believing!

Get your head in the game

When I was younger it was my dream to represent Australia in basketball at the Olympics. My earlier childhood memory was watching Michael Jordan play for the USA Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and he was captivating. Fast forward to 2016 and a basketball career never played out for me, but I'm still an avid fan of the game. As I write this the 2016 Rio Games are winding down. The Boomers (Australia's Mens Basketball Team) have had one of their best Olympics yet, playing strongly throughout the opening rounds and even threatening the (eventual Gold Medal winning) US side. After being strongly considered as medal favourites, the Boomers fizzled out in the finals, losing against a better Spanish side in the semi-finals and missing out on a long-coveted and elusive medal. It will go down as one of the most disappointing finishes to a campaign, perhaps in the team's history - to come so close and narrowly miss out.

The key match up going into the game would be between two NBA stars: Aussie Andrew Bogut and Spaniard Pau Gasol. As it turns out, both players performances determined the outcome of the game. Gasol played magnificently, producing stellar play as he inspired his team to victory. Bogut on the other hand struggled with fouls throughout, taken off the court halfway through the game as he fouled out. After the game he criticised the referees for calling soft fouls:

They (the referees) will look back at the tape and see how obviously bad they were.
— Andrew Bogut

Bogut also said of Spain: "I don't blame Spain. If the referees are calling it, you keep doing it." What he means is that the Spanish players recognised the tone of the game (that the referees were calling soft fouls) and played to the whistle, disabling Australia's star players and maximising the opportunities given to them. It's something every young athlete learns: just because there are referees and rules, does not mean the game is always fair - play to the whistle. 

We see athletes and celebrities have meltdowns and reactions all the time. They jeopardise their whole career in one stupid moment. Obviously, famous people aren't the only people who slip up - they just do it famously. We've all had that experience where we've put others offside but something we've said or done: when your spouse hears you whisper annoyances under you breath, when your coworker misinterprets a joke, when you forget a specific instruction or request, and especially when you forget a birthday or anniversary! 

It's clear to see that how we handle our emotions and reactions is incredibly important. The way we do that is by growing our Emotional Intelligence. Having poor Emotional Intelligence results in those moments of disconnect with ourselves or with others. But growing our Emotional Intelligence enables us to better reach our potential and to more positively influence others. Emotional Intelligence is split into different competencies, which if understood and implemented allow us to do life better.

So what does Emotional Intelligence look like? A few years back I reunited with some high school buddies to start a social basketball team. The fact that it was a social league did nothing to dim my competitiveness. In the middle of one game where we were being thrashed, I was going for a shot and got fouled...or at least I thought I had been fouled, the referee didn't see it. In reaction I grabbed the ball and heaved it - right in the direction of the referee. I got called for a Technical Foul, which are given for acts of misconduct. I immediately took myself out of the game and recollected myself: why did I do that? How did I let myself get so riled up? I later profusely apologised to the referee, my teammates and the opponents for losing my cool. 

My foul was an obvious moment of having little Emotional Intelligence. I failed to understand my own reactions and to regulate them. By exploding and throwing the ball, I wasn't showing empathy or seeing things from the perspective of the referees (or my teammates or opponents). My outburst instantly put the refs offside with me, rather than motivating them to work with me. It gave my opponents an edge, by showing them how rattled they were making me feel. And it affected my teammates ability to trust me; and pulled their mood down. Not only did we lose the game, but I had lost the respect of all those who witnessed my reaction. Had I been more present in the moment, or had the Boomers responded to the situation, perhaps there would have been very different results.

So, obviously it's of benefit to us to have others onside with us, and here we encounter the "dark side" to Emotional Intelligence: that we can use it to manipulate situations or people to benefit ourselves. Adolf Hitler is someone who spent years mastering his gestures and body language so as to win people over. The strategy of the Spanish basketball team is similarly cunning in manipulating the situation for their benefit. 

Though it could be used for manipulation and personal gain, growing our Emotional Intelligence ultimately can be used to serve others and be a positive influence in the world. Martin Luther King Jr masterfully understood emotions and was able to deliver his speeches with a carefully crafted mix of passion and reasoning. We find an invitation to use our Emotional Intelligence to serve others within the Scriptures. When talking about the two most important commandments, Jesus says:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
— Mt 22:36-40

What we're talking about here is being the best version of yourself. And this Scripture invites us to consider that the best best version of yourself places others first. In order to serve others well, we have to be aware of their needs and feelings in any given moment. And understanding how our words and actions impacts upon them will help us seek the most helpful words and actions in that moment. Growing our Emotional Intelligence allows us to most positively influence others,  and eliminates those moments where we put others offside.

But how do we actually grow Emotional Intelligence? 

  1. Practice mindfulness: throughout our day we place our attention on numerous events, feelings and emotions. We also neglect to pay attention to many, many more things that happen throughout our day. Mindfulness practice is about growing our awareness of our self in the world. When we are mindful, we are more aware of our feelings, emotions, reactions and behavior, and how these impact ourselves and others. There are heaps of apps available that have different meditations and mindfulness practices. A great one is Smiling Mind, which has several courses designed to improve mindfulness.
  2. Ask others for their perspective: by asking others how they perceived an action or something you've done, you can gain further insight into your behavior. If you have upset someone else, as well as apologising and reconciling, ask for their perspective on the event or occurrence and ask how you could avoid similar situations in the future.
  3. Name your emotions: Emotional Intelligence is, after all, about emotions. But how often do we stop to name how we're feeling throughout the day or in different situations. Part of this practice is expanding our emotional vocabulary. I heard about this in a podcast once: our emotions can be limited by the language we use, e.g. if  I constantly describe situations as "frustrating", than I will mainly experience situations as frustrating. Developing a emotional vocabulary can help in relating to others and empathising with their experiences.

Rather than being a passive spectator, watching as life happens to you, being Emotionally Intelligent allows you to get into the game, to be proactive (rather than reactive) and have a positive impact in the world and with others. Would Emotional Intelligence have helped Andrew Bogut and the Boomers in that Bronze medal match? Maybe, maybe not. What is clear is that when it counted. Bogut wasn't in the game. We can apply that metaphor to our own journey to do life better:

we have to be in the game to achieve our goals.

Getting Creative

Arts and Crafts was never my strong point growing up. In Year 8, we had to make a paper mache model of a planet. I thoroughly disliked the sloppy mess of glue and paper. When it came to painting it, my attempt at mixing paints resulted in a poo-brown colour. We had to craft clay planets and stars which would hang from paper mache planet but mine ended up looking like clumpy rocks. The whole process was a traumatic experience and I banished myself from the Art room for the rest of high school.

I never considered myself as "creative" when I was younger. That label was attached to people who could draw or craft or sing or play music or act. I wasn't necessarily good at any of those things. I enjoyed scribbling, but it never looked like anything. I was always fascinated by instruments but didn't learn to play until I was 18. And I hated the attention of acting or presenting but I always loved stories. Which begs the question: do you actually have to be good at arts to be "creative"?

I think there's room for separation between "creative" as a label and creativity as processes. I think for most of us, we encounter creativity as a label, attached to those whose giftedness lies in the visual or performing arts. The issue with this label then is that those of us who don't receive that label feel like impostors when we try to engage creative processes. This is highly unfortunate because creative processes are not only natural, they're necessary. I'll get to the science in a second, but research proves that engaging in creativity has real impact on our physical and mental well-being, by lowering stress, relaxing the muscles, reducing indigestion and inflammation and increasing self-esteem and productivity.

But first, lets get things straight: creative is a label, creativity is something we all can and should engage in - and probably do without realising it. Creativity is defined by influential neurologist Alice W. Flaherty as:

a creative idea will be defined simply as one that is both novel and useful (or influential) in a particular social setting
— http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2571074/

Being creative is expressing new ways that influence your world. It might seem like a big ask to come up with something novel and new but in fact, we do this all the time, it's inherent: you could say dog twice and a spectrograph will be able to record differences between the two ways you say it.

Think about the creative process as a state of "flow". Athletes talk about this when they get into a zone: they can't miss a shot, their body is pumping at all cylinders, they can't be beaten. Or a songwriter is pumping out hit song after hit song in the recording studio. Or a speaker gets up and doesn't even need a script, their hitting the points and the crowd is feeling it. But "flow" isn't just experienced by "creative" people. Have you had days where you were smashing through your to-do-list? You were responding to emails and not only were you clearing your inbox, you were providing insightful replies? Have you ever smashed out whole sections of an assignment or report without even being tempted to procrastinate? And while you were doing it, you didn't even feel time, you didn't feel the expectation, everything was just...flowing!

So we've established that creativity isn't just for visual and performing artists, more than just a label, it's a process. That process occurs when any new or useful ideas are produced, which is what our behaviour is doing constantly. And often this can look like a state of "flow", where we are deeply engaged and produce optimal results. Cool, so how does this benefit our health and help us to do life better?

I noted above some of the physical and mental benefits of being in a creative state. The reason behind the benefits of creativity lies in the neural activity that occurs during that flow state. A study was conducted on this topic, by monitoring the neural activity that occurred during freestyle rap (yes, freestyle rap). Brain activity was compared while subjects performed freestyle and prepared verses and what was found was that while freestyling the parts of the brain concerned with executive function relaxed, while the parts of the brain that lit up were those concerned with association, context, events and emotional responses.

What this means is that while we're creating, our brains actually shut off from a lot of the stimuli which cause us distress, anxiety, worry or just busy-ness; allowing us to de-stress while contributing and influencing our "particular social context" (as we said in our definition of creativity). We get to feel good, grow our emotional intelligence (the part of the brain that lit up during the freestyling study was associated with emotional responses) and we get to positively influence others - that's a win-win! So how do we develop our creativity?

 

Exercise

One study conducted looked into the effect of exercise on creative processes. A group of 60 uni students performed a creative task, either after doing no exercise, 30 minutes after exercise or 2 hours after exercise. The exercise included aerobic activity such as jogging, swimming, fast walking, stationary bikes and stair climbing. What the study found was that exercise did have a positive impact on creativity and had lasting effects (even up to 2 hours)!

 

Meditation

Similarly to the freestyling experiment, studies have shown that meditation also has impacts on the brain: parts of the brain also decrease and increase activity during meditation. Mindfulness meditation or contemplative prayer, which openly reflect on different sensations, can improve creativity.

 

Appreciate different forms of art and literature

The visual and performing arts are meant to inspire. Rather than being jealous of those we've labelled as "creative", we can allow them to literally inspire our own creative processes. Appreciating different forms of art and literature light up the parts of the brain that are engaged when we create. So it seems that art imitates art!

 

Keep notes

Sometimes, creativity is just completely random! Often our best ideas come in the shower or when we're driving - when our mind is in a relaxed and distracted state. Keeping notes in a notepad or on your phone will preserve ideas that can spark creative flows later on.

 

Ultimately, the only way to get better at being creative is to find the forms of creativity you enjoy and best engage in and to just create. I mentioned that I never considered myself creative when I was younger, but I do consider myself creative now. And that's because of two lessons I've learned.

  1. Creativity involves sharing your novel ideas. I've always loved writing, but I was terrified of sharing my work (I still am!) - but by keeping my writing to myself it wasn't contributing to my social context. Don't get me wrong, sometimes we create for our own rehabilitation, but we only grow that craft and engage in flow when we share it out.
  2. Growing creativity might also mean engaging in new crafts or creative endeavours. Throughout high school, most of my friends were musical. Our hangouts often involved them having a massive guitar jam-session. Sometimes I could get involved by writing songs but I had (falsely) accepted  that it was beyond me to ever learn an instrument. Six months out from high school I had self-taught myself basic chords and was enabled to write music to go with my lyrics. Sometimes we do limit our own potential to influence through creativity. Stretching beyond our comfort zone allows us to do life better.
If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
— Vincent Van Gogh

So, wherever we feel we sit on the creativity spectrum, there are practical things we can do to improve our mindset for creativity: through exercise, meditation and appreciating different forms of art. Taking notes captures the often sporadic nature of creative thought. Finally, creativity also grows through (publicly) practicing our crafts and by stretching ourselves to learn new ones. I used examples from my life of creative arts (writing and music), but the message rings true for all professions:

Develop a creative mindset, practice your craft and stretch your creative pursuits and not only will you do life better, but you will (in more ways) positively influence others.

What to do?

At Project Hatch, we're lucky to get to do a job that we love. Our roles often involve us doing stuff that's enjoyable and exciting. More than that, it's also incredibly fulfilling work, especially when we see the positive influence we get to create in the schools and with the students we work with. It's easy to get passionate about what we do.

Yet, not everyone does what they love for work. We hear people complain about their bosses or their work. More and more people leave their full-time jobs to become their own boss. Which prompts the question: should we do what we're passionate about as a job? Or is that simply unrealistic? 

A quick scan of the existing research reveals split opinions. One article suggests that following your passion is "terrible advice" and that for some people, passion simply doesn't lead to a job:

A 2003 study of college students by the University of Quebec found that 84 percent of them had passions, and 90 percent of these passions involved sports, music, and art. But only 3 percent of jobs are in the sports, music, and art industries. The result is massive competition for a few highly-prized jobs. And just because you have a passion for, say, music, doesn’t mean that you’ll be a particularly good professional musician.
— William MacAskill, http://99u.com/articles/51623/the-many-many-problems-with-follow-your-passion

MacAskill suggests we should instead find engaging work, the sort of job that could, in time, become a passion. 

Elsewhere, this NY Times article suggests that this sort of "moral satisfaction alone won't pay the rent". Their suggestion is to find your area of expertise - any thing or activity on which you spend a substantial amount of time or attention. Odds are that if you've spent a significant amount of time on that activity, you'll likely show an appealing amount of expertise in a related job or role. That expertise is what will open the door to fulfilling (or at least, enjoyable) employment.

What these articles spotlight is that our culture emphasises "fit" for our passions, or in other words to quite literally follow your passions and do what best suits them. This is called a "fit mindset". Recent research at the University of Michigan identified this mindset, and contrast it with the "develop mindset", which sees passion and expertise in a certain career path unfold over time. What's interesting is the study found that both the fit and develop mindsets resulted in similar levels of satisfaction and fulfilment over time.

Perhaps it all boils down to semantics. Like the word "love", we use the word "passion" loosely and in reference to many things. Sometimes a passion is just a surface-level attraction to something - which of course won't lead to a career pathway. Passion is probably the wrong word, as presented in this TED talk:

Rather than passion, we can pursue a purpose. More than a feeling, a deeply connected sense of purpose can lead us to choose a career or pathway. This is certainly Nicole Williams understanding, based on her experience of working with the Canadian Institute for the Blind. She was faced with a seemingly impossible situation when a blind man approached her with the dream of becoming a pilot. But she was able to dig deeper past the passion of flying with the man to determine the depths of that passion - to find the underlying truth or narrative that this man understood as his purpose. The man was able to find a successful career as a Project Manager which fulfilled his passions (working with a team in responding to complex situations) and led to a deeper sense of purpose.

Passion is a feeling, and like any other emotion it will come and go, and move throughout all the aspects of our lives. Rather than gambling our experience of passion on work alone, we can shape our lives intentionally, and build into life things that will allow passion to flow throughout the whole of life, things like relationships and hobbies and fun. This also takes the pressure off of finding a dream job. Your career is not the be-all and end-all of who you are, though it can still align with that deeper sense of who you are and be purposeful. How do we find purposeful work?

  1. Have an understanding of your values. Know the things you most deeply and fully believe, the things you stand for, the things you can't compromise about yourself. See, the passion conversation usually starts with gifts and talents: what are you good at? But purpose digs deeper to the heart of who we are and asks: who must you be in this life? Maybe that comes back to faith for you, or family, or being of service, or being the best. Whatever your values may be, don't rush this process. Take time to get a deep understanding of what your values are and why they are so important to you - what are the life experiences that have made these values so key to who you are? What do these values tell you about the sort of life you have to live to be the fullest version of you?
  2. See the needs of your community. We need others. Longitudinal studies have uncovered that relationships are the key difference in people's levels of happiness throughout life. Further research has proven that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with. It isn't about becoming a life-of-the-party extrovert, rather, we become the fullest version of ourselves through the influence of others. We need others, which also means others need us.
  3. Now, look at your gifts and interests. This is the first step in finding passionate work, but I place it as the third step here. Why? Because starting with what you're good at or what you like doing lacks context. But when you have a deep understanding of who you are and who those around you are, your work gets to satisfy both your own needs and the needs of others. Which means that even when your work doesn't bring the feeling of passion, it will still hold meaning for you.

This seems like a simple 3-step process, but in reality determining your calling in this life is not always simple, it does take deep thinking and reflection and development that only comes through hard work and dedication. After all that, it may not even seem obvious immediately. So yeah, it would be a lot easier just to skip that process and just get a job - but that would be selling yourself short by negating your own potential and selling the world short by not offering all that you could be. The key point of this post is this: you do not have to live a life that does not fulfil you and others. 

So, to answer the question we started with: should we do what we're passionate about as a job? Perhaps we can actually go further than that. What narrative are you pursuing? How are you called to live your life in a way that positively impacts the world and the lives of others? These are the questions that will form the foundation of your journey to a better life - the starting point to doing life better is to not sell yourself short. As the great Saint Catherine of Sienna declared: 

“be who God made you to be, and only then will you set the world on fire!”