“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
One of the best mission statements ever crafted 235 years ago today. The clarion call to the American Dream. Our chief founding officers got that one right back then, but today is America on track?
The American Dream itself is in question. And our balanced scorecard is not doing so hot. It turns out that a in recent OECD study on “life satisfaction” and “happiness”, the United States failed to make the top ten.
Some lessons for pursuing happiness do come from embracing failure. Appreciating the gritty realities and problems, failures if you will, of life are clinically proven to make you happier. Does that mean that you spend all day wallowing in whatever misery you can find? The yin and yang of happiness is accepting shortcomings while dreaming of possibilities. Like all balancing acts, this one is hard to maintain. The forces of aspiration and hope that dreams inspire hazardously detract one from remaining grounded, while the forces of realism undermine lofty dreams and hopes. In fact the OECD highlights ‘balance’ as a critical determinant in the Happiness Index: “The happiest countries seem to be places where there is a good balance of work and leisure time.”
So I really mean it when I wish America a HAPPY birthday.
Victory in Europe Day today is a time for remembrance of one of the most tragic horrors of our times. It’s hard to imagine such a failure of humanity that was the Nazi experience in Germany could inspire any positivity. But Guardian Religious Affairs correspondent Riazat Butt points out that even the darkest tragedies can have their own silver linings in a BBC2 ‘Pause for Thought’…
- “I was in my room last week, reading about Nazi Germany’s desire to destroy the Soviet Union, when all of a sudden I started bawling my eyes out. As I cried I could only think: ‘I want to get married. I want to have a baby.’ If it sounds abrupt and bizarre, then trust me it felt like that too…I had no idea what was going on, so I asked my friend Sadia for help. She said there was nothing to understand. I was just ready. ‘This is great,’ she told me. ‘Everything starts with intention. You have to know you want something before you can take active steps towards it.’ It made her smile, though, that Hitler, the father of collective societal annihilation, had brought about my recognition and desire for continuity and companionship. She talked about Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, who wrote that God created suffering and heartache so that joy might be known as their opposite. ‘God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so you’ll have two wings to fly – not teaches you by means of opposites, so you’ll have two wings to fly – not one.’ Or as Sadia put it, you can’t know something until you’ve experienced its opposite. ‘Think about it,’ she said, ‘how do you know you’re at a good place in your life unless you’ve been through a bad place? How do you know you want happiness unless you’ve been truly miserable?’”
Fyodor Dostoevsky born on this day in 1821.
Of all of the tragedies to bear in life, years in a brutal prison camp would seem about as low as one could go. Dostoevsky bore them with gratitude for teaching him the preciousness of life and, in effect, Seth’s strategy for getting unstuck. The end result was a collection of literary masterpieces for which the rest of the world should be grateful. His ordeal is recounted in Robert Greene’s ’33 Strategies of War’ illustrating the “Death-Ground Strategy”…
- “Dostoyevsky was told his new sentence: four years hard labor in Siberia, to be followed by a stint in the army. Barely affected, he wrote that day to his brother, ‘When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in error and idleness,…then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift…every minute could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew! Now my life will change; now I will be reborn.’ A few days later, ten-pound shackles were put on Dostoyevsky’s arms and legs–they would stay there for the length of his prison term–and he was carted off to Siberia. For the next four years, he endured the most abysmal prison conditions. Granted no writing privileges, he wrote novels in his head, memorized them. Finally, in 1857, still serving the army period of his sentence, he was allowed to start publishing his work. Where before he would torture himself over a page, spend half a day idling it away in thought, now he wrote and wrote. Friends would see him walking the streets of St. Petersburg mumbling bits of dialogue to himself, lost in his characters and plots. His new motto was ‘Try to get as much done as possible in the shortest time.’ Some pitied Dostoyevsky his time in prison. That made him angry; he was grateful for the experience and felt no bitterness. But for that December day in1849, he felt, he would have wasted his life. Right up until his death, in 1881, he continued writing at a frantic pace, churning out novel after novel—Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov –as if each one were his last.”
I guess you could call 14 February, the day he was released after 5 years incarceration, his second birthday.
“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
As the Frankie Boyle Paralympic controversy underscores, if there one life-skill that any comedian must develop, it is embracing vulnerability. The ultimate guru to aspiring performers…an just about anyone else…is Brene Brown. Her TED talk on the subject (above) is a classic and powerful expression of embracing the failure in all of us. She admonished us that there are 3 things we all do to avoid embracing failure and vulnerability…
- We pretend (that things are okay when they are not) – “The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it…. So what I did is I took all of the interviews where I saw worthiness, where I saw people living that way, and just looked at those. What do these people have in common?…They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
- We perfect (in an effort to control) – “And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting. This led to a little breakdown — which actually looked more like this. And it did. I call it a breakdown; my therapist calls it a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening sounds better than breakdown, but I assure you it was a breakdown. And I had to put my data away and go find a therapist…And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
- We numb (in an effort to blunt and hide the pain of failure) – “This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability…And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause — we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”
Leaders and Managers can learn something from dirt itself in its embrace.
Leadership and Management is all about balance between the two. Balancing upside opportunity with downside risk. Chet Raymo illustrates a great metaphor from the world of science for getting this right – the angle of repose…
- “There is a concept in physics called angle of repose. Set an object, a book say, on a plank. Now slowly tip up one end of the plank until the moment when the book just starts to slide. The angle between the plank and the horizontal is the angle of repose, where the component of the gravitational force down the plank becomes greater than the maximum friction force holding the book at rest. Or, in more evocative terms — As I write I am lying on the couch with the laptop in my lap, in perfect repose. If you started tipping up the couch, at some point I’d go sliding into a heap at the bottom. That’s the angle of repose, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the angle of the end of repose.”
Leaders elevate the trajectory, Managers keeping things from falling down. Both together achieve the angle of repose.
With life imitating digital, a real life encyclopaedic compendium of failure is the Museum of Failed Products.
The exhibit is featured in Oliver Burkeman’s book “The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” excerpted in the article “Happiness is a Glass Half Empty”. Its subtitle is a thorough embrace of failure: “Be positive, look on the bright side, stay focused on success: so goes our modern mantra. But perhaps the true path to contentment is to learn to be a loser.”
- “In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams. It doesn’t look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you’re seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won’t find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse – operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America – has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products. This is consumer capitalism’s graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing…The Museum of Failed Products was itself a kind of accident, albeit a happier one. Its creator, a now-retired marketing man named Robert McMath, merely intended to accumulate a ‘reference library’ of consumer products, not failures per se…What McMath hadn’t taken into account was the three-word truth that was to prove the making of his career: ‘Most products fail.’ According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%. Simply by collecting new products indiscriminately, McMath had ensured that his hoard would come to consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.”
The heart of his message about happiness and failure, for which the Museum stands as potent tribute, echoes ones of the tenets of my life: “Expectations are the enemy of happiness.” .
Let the Games begin.
The XXX Olympiad (the 3 kisses Olympics?) kicked off with a quirky and risky Opening Ceremonies. Some of it worked and some of it embraced failure like Dr. Frankenstein let loose in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had the privilege of an inside seat watching NBC put together its broadcast of the festivities at their Saturday Night Live studio in 30 Rock where NBC.com has their nerve centre for the next two weeks. Piero is all set up for any manner of its own spectacular effects and audience thrilling tricks.
The joy of victory, but many failures to be embraced ahead. Also, many dreams will die in the freshly christened stadiums. Athletes who know that another 4 unkind years on their bodies and wallets just won’t be possible if they don’t make it to the podium this time.
While we will applaud the medal winners, and empathise with those who fall short, Stephen Pile reminds us in his piece “The Joy of Epic Failure” (paywalled) that even the most disastrous failures at times like these even have their places in our hearts…
- “It is a grave misreading of the human predicament to suppose that everything is going to work out well. Happiness lies in not only accepting that things go belly up, but also rejoicing in them when they do. For years we have been told that success is the thing. But in Britain, for example, it only took John Sergeant to start dancing a few years ago for the whole nation to rise up in his support. The sleeping giant awakes. We rediscover our ancient qualities. It is not just in Britain that this happens. When Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani practically drowned in his Olympic qualifying heat the whole world rose to applaud him. When the Jamaicans entered the Winter Olympics, came last and fell off their bobsleigh, Hollywood was on the phone straight away and made a film about them. It seems a long time now since I formed the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain back in the simpler days of 1978 with myself, cocooned in administrative chaos, as president. To qualify for membership you just had to be not terribly good at something and attend meetings at which people talked about and gave demonstrations of their main area of expertise. We had some glorious evenings when you heard snatches of heart-warming conversation (“Yes, sheep are difficult” — Not Terribly Good Artist). Eventually I was thrown out as president and the club voted itself out of existence when it received several thousand applications for membership, some from as far away as Botswana. This can only be read as yet further proof of humanity’s preference for the worst over the best.”
Albert Espinosa is very much the man of the day. He combines the off-beat humour evocative of Edward Lear whose bicentenary is celebrated this weekend, with a fascinating story of cancer survival which is celebrated with last night’s Moon Walk and today’s first (Aberystwyth, Wales) of a series of ‘Race for Life’ events.
“Ha ha, I’m a cancer joker with 4.7 lives” Sunday Times piece (paywalled) by Matthew Campbell chronicles author and comedian Albert Espinosa and his lighthearted take on this heavy subject…
- “’I wasn’t expecting any of it,’ he says. ‘I always thought I would die much younger — so I’m living on extra time really. It’s total happiness.’ He limps slightly but otherwise you would not know he has a false limb. An affable figure with straw-coloured hair and big brown eyes, he has a gentle demeanour and pleasant smile, even as he recalls what he lived through. It sounds like hell. But Espinosa at times appears almost nostalgic about his hospital years. ‘It was also a happy time for me,’ he says. He had cancer from the age of 14 to 24 and in that decade went through multiple horrors from operations to chemotherapy, the amputation of his leg and then the loss of part of his liver and a lung. He also lost several close friends to the disease. How could it have been fun? For one thing, he was not alone. Hospitals breed the same bonding relationships as battlefields and he forged close friendships with other cancer-stricken children. For another, amazingly, he managed to keep laughing. He says the only day when they behaved like really sick children was Christmas Day. ‘We all knew that was the day the Barcelona football players came to visit us and they always gave a signed football to the kid who appeared to be the sickest,’ he says. ‘So that day we all stayed in our beds with the blanket pulled up to our chins, trying to look as weak as possible.’ He goes on: ‘I think my greatest achievement was not beating four types of cancer: it was putting on the world’s sickest face so that Gary Lineker gave me a football.’ Espinosa was born an optimist, obviously. Humour, he says, has helped him to cope: ‘I always say that humour helps to explain everything and it helps us in any situation.’..One of the lessons is that every loss is accompanied by unexpected gains… Espinosa cannot believe his luck. ‘It’s like a dream,’ he says. ‘I’ve gone straight from a small hospital room to the big screen.’ It reminds him of one of the things he learnt in hospital: ‘The luck you have in being alive.’”
On the subject of laughing at cancer in the face (including a choice scene on embracing the hair loss in perhaps not as quite an elegant fashion as possible), I also highly recommend the film 50/50.
If Shawn Achor needs an artist for his next book on the Happiness Advantage, then the obvious choice would be Hugh. Here are just a few of his pieces that illustrate a number of Shawn’s points that turn the notion of success on its head…
By turning the notion of ‘success’ upside down, Shawn Achor shares a number of colourful insights which very much adhere to embracing failure though he never explicitly says as much. His masterful TED lecture ‘The Happiness Advantage’ is one of the best of the myriad of gems in the TED series (thanks Isley). Anytime knocking your sister off a bunk bed breaking her leg can be turned into a ‘good’ thing, is pretty crafty turning adversity to advantage (not to mention a hilarious tale).
His moral of his colourful stories is that ‘We think that we have to be successful, then we will be happier, but the real problem is that our brains work in the opposite order.’ They echo a lot of material from Dan Gilbert’s own TED presentation on Impact Bias and how we can ‘synthesize happiness’…
- “It is not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which the your brain views the world that shapes reality…90% of your happiness is not determined by your external world, but by how your brain processes the external world…75% of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support, and your ability to see stresses as a challenge instead of threat.”
The theme reminds me of a romantic line in the movie ‘Loch Ness’, “’I have to see it before I can believe it’…’No, Mr. Dempsey, you have to believe it before you can see it.’”
To inspire this happiness Achor offers his own mantra to turning adversity to the ‘Happiness Advantage’…“Be positive in the present.”