01st May 2015
BLOG SERIES: The Most Memorable Thing I’ve Learnt
We thought we’d start a blog series featuring our Partners, friends and guests. The aim is for people to share, in less than 1000 words, the most memorable thing they’ve learnt in life or business.
We’re asking people: “Among the many things you’ve learnt along the way, what’s the one that’s really stayed with you, that you go back to, that continues to be an ‘aha’ moment that you won’t forget. What was it, why was it memorable, and how does it still apply to what you do today?”
Ok, so the first thing I have to confess is that it took me until my fortieth year to really learn that the only person who really controlled my thoughts and emotions was me. I had an inkling of this in the years leading up to my breakthrough moment, but it never penetrated my being until a number of events converged for me.
This lesson started when I came across that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. I thought about this for a long time. How come? What does she mean? If someone says something nasty to you, you just ignore it (or them)! Like water off a duck’s back, just let it go? It sounded like one of those things that’s easy to say, but harder to do…….yet, it stuck with me. It had a certain ring to it. I tucked that quote away and let it live in the recesses of my mind over a few years.
A few years later when I got interested in classical philosophy, I discovered to Marcus Aurelius’ book “Meditations” much like millions had before me over the last 1,900 years. Woven through his work is the core concept of stoic philosophy: “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts”. Put another way, your life is what your thoughts make it. Like Buddha who lived around the same time in the east, he’d figured out that the most powerful thing we have, that’s within our control, is our thinking.
Wow. What if this was true? What if one’s life, one’s destiny, one’s happiness was actually a product of one’s thinking (and a bit of good fortune). Could you ‘think’ yourself to a better place, or into a better mood? I’d always had an ability to do what I would call ‘block things out’; that is, take my thoughts away from the bad stuff; the things I didn’t like, things that made me worry too much. Was I shaping my life through my thoughts?
So again, this idea started to live next to Elinor’s words in my mind. But big ideas like this take time to take root. They need to linger, they need nurturing and rediscovery, and each time you read something similar, or hear of an associated idea, it builds an extra layer in your thoughts. Like a 3-D printer laying down tiny layers of composite on top of each former one that eventually forms an object, I started to create a new belief about the importance of my thinking.
I remember the day it all made perfect sense to me. I’ve got young kids from a second marriage, and having previously lived through the years of bringing up kids, with all the joys and downsides, I was finding that at times, my patience was not what it used to be. Coming home from work, with them running around, yelling and scattering toys and clothes around the house, and my wife seeking respite and escape herself, I’d find myself quite annoyed. Where was the ordered, tranquil calm I sought?
So driving home one night, and steeling myself for what I’d worked up as the chaos about to be sighted, I thought I’d try something different. Instead of wishing for them to change their behaviours and bend to my ways, (which I clearly had no power over) I would change the only thing I had power over – my thoughts and feelings, and my reaction to the chaos.
They weren’t annoying me – the annoyance was in my thoughts and emotions, and I could do something about it. What a liberating concept. I was responsible for my feelings, not them. I owned them, and so I could do something about them. I had the power over the situation largely in my head, if I chose to exercise it. So I did.
I took control of my thoughts. I remembered how quickly kids grow up and pass out of your life. I remembered that I could put their clothes and toys away pretty quickly. I realised that they were happy normal kids letting off steam, and having fun – and wasn’t that a joy to see!
Suddenly, my mood had changed. I’d taken responsibility for my state of being, and what a powerful, insightful and calming thing that was. No one could really annoy me unless I let them; I could change my mood by changing my thinking.
So now, when my 9 year old daughter (she of the toy and clothes throwing kind) comes up to me and tells me her big brother is annoying her I say: “No, you’re just letting him annoy you. You can choose not to if you want”.
As she looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind, I know I’ve just put down the first layer of composite that over time might just become a liberating powerful idea for her – she’s got 31 more years to beat me to that wonderful lesson!
Footnote: While incarcerated at Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela recited the poem Invictus (by William Ernest Henley) to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of self-mastery. Its last verse is:
“It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul”