My Mom

FYI, I take after my mom — photos are not really our thing.

On September 18, my mom, Jorgina, turned seventy. It was a wonderful celebration, even though the other half of the family that doesn’t live in the Azores participated only for a few moments via a video call.

Seventy years made me think about the inevitable, the inescapable, the undeniable. Death. Make no mistake. My mom is a badass. She’s easily got another thirty years in her, and she will definitely not go gentle into that good night. But still, it will happen, and it doesn’t feel nice.

This past Saturday, after my coaching sessions at IESE Business School, my colleagues and friends, Conor Neill and Tony Anagor, and I stood in the parking lot and chatted under the beautiful Barcelona sun.

We talked about how we sometimes struggle to slow down, to stop, to do nothing. Tony said he recently listened to a podcast that suggested we read a poem to help us become more mindful and slowdown. This is the poem:

Be here. Not there.

That’s the poem. Be here. Not there.

Back to my mom. So grateful for this poem! If I’m there, at the future moment of her death, I’m bound to worry and suffer. If I’m here, at the present moment of her seventy years, I’m bound to celebrate and feel happy.

My mom will die. I will die. I don’t know what it will be like. But it seems pointless to stop living the present to worry about a future I can’t change. So for now, I choose to stay here, happily celebrating her seventy years.

Love you, mom.

What Is Your Problem?

For the audio version of this post click below.

On July 6th I gave my first fact-to-face speech since the lockdown. I spoke at the BED Event in Barcelona for professionals of the events industry, both event organizers and providers. My question for them was: What is your problem?

One way of making sense of life, is to view the situations we face as a series of problems. For example, getting a degree, finding a job, and raising kids can be seen as “problems” we face in life.

Problems fall into one of two categories:

  • Problems-we-have. Examples could be: I want a promotion; I want more clients; I need someone in my life. What do these problems all have in common? In all of them we occupy the center stage and the spotlight is shining on us.
  • Problems-we-solve. Examples could be: I want to participate more in the company’s success; I want to serve more clients; I’d love to share my life with someone special. These problems have in common the fact that other people occupy the center stage and the spotlight is shining on them.

Generosity is the highest form of fulfilment.

Notice how both types of problems deal with the same situations and the same people. The difference is who the problem is about: us or others. Now look back on the lives of your role models. Was it a series of problems-they-had or problems-they-solved?

From what I’ve seen in my 45 years, it is much easier to deal with the challenges we face, both professionally and in our personal life, when we transform problems-we-have into problems-we-solve by moving our butts away from the center stage and shinning the spotlight on others.

So what problems are you solving at this point in your life?
Given the recent changes in the world, what new problems could you solve?

What Is Your Problem?

Wisdom for Teams #24

That’s what I consider true generosityYou give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.”

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR (1908 – 1986), French writer, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist, and social theorist.

Wisdom for Teams #23

“Without the understanding that we need a particular form of aid at every crucial threshold in our lives, and without the robust vulnerability in asking for that help, we cannot pass through the door that bars us from the next dispensation of our lives.”

DAVID WHYTE (Born 1955), Anglo-Irish poet; His writing explores the timeless relationship of human beings to their world, to creation, to others, and to the end of life itself.

How’s Your Psychological Immune System?

Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash

I recently listened to a guided meditation where William B. Irvine, an expert in Stoic philosophy, explained the idea of a psychological immune system. Imagine Billy, a child who grows up never being exposed to anything unpleasant, never receiving any bad news, never criticised or insulted, and always having someone solve his problems. What will happen to the adult Billy when he goes out into the world? How will he deal with setbacks?

Whereas the biological immune system protects us from sicknesses caused by germs, the psychological immune system protects us from the unpleasant emotions that are triggered by life’s setbacks.

The world is imperfect, which means shit will happen. So it seems wise to strengthen our psychological immune system in order to better deal with setbacks. How can we do this?

  1. Psychological vaccination: Irvine suggests we regularly use the Stoic technique of entertaining negative thoughts, like imagining losing something or someone. Or recognising that our lives could be much worse and imagining what that would look like. He says we don’t want to dwell long on these negative thoughts, but for it to be flickering moments. These thoughts work like a vaccine, preparing our psychological immune system for life’s setbacks. Another Stoic technique he recommends is called “the last time”. I talk about it in this video here.
  2. Psychological exposure: Another way to develop our psychological immune system is to expose ourselves to “germs”. This means deliberately moving out of our comfort zone, and doing things that are physically and/or emotionally uncomfortable. For some people, karaoke in front of a big crowd will do the trick.

In what shape is your psychological immune system? A good measure is how often you feel outraged or lose control to anger. Another is the average mood of your mind. Is it tranquility and confidence, or agitation and anxiety?

It’s naive to think we’ll live without setbacks. Preparing for them by strengthening our psychological immune system is the wise thing to do.

Why Does Anger Make Us Angry? Is Sam Harris Wrong?

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

When anger gets the best of us, we can easily get angry at ourselves and others. What is happening here? In essence, we’re judging our emotions. We consider some good and some bad; some positive and some negative, some acceptable and some not.

In a decade of training teams in organisations, I’m yet to meet someone who does not consider anger to be negative. Even renowned experts in the field, like philosopher and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, consider anger a negative emotion.

We get angry at anger because we think it’s negative. Is it?

I’ve been following Sam closely for the past three years through Waking Up and some of his publications. He’s got an amazing mind. I am thankful for his dedication to helping us live better lives. On the issue of anger being a negative emotion, I think there is a distinction to be made.

Some emotions may be unpleasant, but does that make them negative? What would happen if we did not feel disgust at the smell of milk gone bad? What would happened if we did not feel fear when startled by a spider? These emotions, though unpleasant, avoid a great deal of pain and sometimes even death.

Not all unpleasant emotions are negative.

When emotions have a purpose we are better off labelling them as pleasant or unpleasant rather than positive or negative. Does anger have a purpose? Anger prepares us to fight off threats. It gives us energy and determination to face the threat so as to ensure our wellbeing.

It is true that our brain has not evolved at the speed of our civilisation. This means that we can sometimes feel anger in situations where our life is not being threatened. The question then becomes: How do we deal with anger in order to reach a desirable outcome?

What is sometimes negative is the way we deal with anger.

When we react to our anger, instead of responding to it, chances are the outcome will be undesirable. Responding means recognising the presence of the emotion, identifying what might be triggering it and addressing the issue so as to reach the most desirable outcome.

Let me be clear: I OFTEN fail to respond in a desirable way. Other times, I do manage anger in the direction of desirable outcomes. Either way, I cannot see how thinking of anger as a negative emotion in-and-of itself will help. On the contrary.

Thinking anger is negative is the first step to turning an unpleasant emotion into an undesirable outcome.

One the tenets of meditation traditions, from Zen to Stoicism, is equanimity, the ability to keep cool, especially in difficult situations. These traditions suggest we are closer to equanimity when we accept things for what they are without judging them.

When we accept anger for the unpleasant emotion it is and appreciate the important albeit limited role it plays, we might be closer to the desirable outcomes we aspire to.

Wisdom for Teams #21

“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve their ship, they would keep it in port forever.”

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Influential Italian philosopher, theologian, and jurist; a Dominican friar and priest.