Pursuit of Happiness

Dilbert - Happiness


“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.

Turning Adverse Thoughts

Gapingvoid - never give up

  • Hope is fuel, it moves us forward and it amplifies our best work.” – Seth Godin Hope and expectation

World Wish Day today. A time to celebrate your hopes and dreams and aspirations. For the skeptics out there, there is actual evidence that wishing and dreaming can provide real, documentable benefits. Robert Rowland Smith in his article “Does daydreaming serve any purpose?” explores this dynamic with its own tinge of turning adversity to advantage…

  • “Sigmund Freud argued that daydreaming is a form of fantasising, fantasising is a form of imagination, and imagination is the basis of art. Hence creative writers. He did add a proviso, however, to the effect that daydreaming is a sign of unhappiness. If you have to fantasise about something else, it means you’re not content with your life as it is. So artists and writers might produce great art, but are constitutionally miserable. A later psychoanalyst, Hanna Segal, had a more positive take. She suggested that daydreaming and imagination were ways of turning unhappy thoughts into something creative. They are signs of good mental health. They might even alleviate depression. And a third psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, implies that the distracted or abstracted mood we’re in when daydreaming provides the mental downtime necessary for us to be able to focus again. When the mind wanders, it refreshes itself. Daydreaming is a holiday that restores our ability to think acutely.”

Given my ongoing series on the “Death of Dreams” you might be inclined to think that my marking of this day would be muted. On the contrary, dreams occupy that duality of both upside and downside. And while my failure embracing side advocates the letting go of faltered dreams, it is only so new ones can thrive in their place. Hugh MacLeod said it best when describing his piece shown above…

  • “It’s not that you must never, ever give up on your dreams, sometimes dreams don’t happen. I once dreamt of living in Tokyo, for example. It never happened. It’s OK, I got over it. I found new dreams instead. It’s when we lose the capacity to dream, I think, is when the rot seeps in. When we stop giving ourselves permission to make the world a better place, even on a modest scale. It’s dreams that make life seem actually real to us.”

Resolving not to Resolve

Dilbert - positive attitude

I’m not the only one not making New Year’s Resolutions. For starters, Scott Adams’ book on embracing failure “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” includes the biting aphorism “Goals are for losers” (though one could argue that people can make resolutions to change the habits, practices and ‘systems’ in their lives without the noxious goal-setting).

FastCompany’s resolution list last year went a step further with its resolution rejectionism…

11. Don’t Listen To These Happiness Myths, And Know The Power Of Negative Thinking. This might be the only New Year’s resolution list that will tell you to not “maintain a positive mindset.” In fact, we say just the opposite: it’s beneficial to feel your emotions (all of them) and more productive to “focus on behavior, not internal states.”

They linked to the piece “5 Big Happiness Myths Debunked” by Oliver Burkeman whose embrace of “negative thinking” I’ve featured a few times here.

May your all your failures bring positive consolations in 2016.

Power of Non-Attainment


Some else who sometimes lost is Olympic champion, Adam Kreek (thanks Ben). His TED talk above provides some great turns of phrase on the embracing failure theme –

  • Power of Non-Attainment: “If we fail happily and we fail more effectively, we gain more self-confidence, we have greater self-esteem, we have more connection to each other.”
  • Seek Failure: “Jake [Adam asked his teammate], How are you so successful?’…[Jake replied] ’I seek failure…Every week we train every day Monday through Saturday and I will willing pick out on workout where I will push myself through my known limit. And I will embrace failure. In fact, my body will fail on me. And for the rest of the week, I will know what this limit is…and I will hover below it. And in fact, the great point of growth occurs right below your limit’.”
  • Capacity Bubble: “Everyone of us has a ‘capacity bubble’. A capacity to achieve, to find success, to find fulfilment, to find happiness in life. We can choose to stay in the center of our capacity bubble and slowly let that bubble shrink. Or we can hover around the edges of our capacity bubble and let that bubble grow. And if you’re impatient and you want that bubble to grow as fast as possible, what should you do? You should be right at the edge of your capacity bubble…”
  • Happy Failure: “…And how do you know where your edge is? You fail. You don’t just fail…you’re happy about it.”

I’ve included Kreek’s two charts illustrating the “capacity bubble” and the “happy failure matrix” below. The “capacity bubble” echoes my own theme of “dream bubbles”. They drive you the greater things, they are meant to be broken (for happy and for sad reasons), and the greatest growth occurs not in achieving them, but just short of achieving them.

This weekend I will be up at Nottingham cheering on the best of British rowing who will be pulling hard to break through their limits at British National Rowing Championships (including Ben). If you fail, may it be a happy one.


Adam Creek - Capacity Bubble


Adam Kreek - Happy Failure Matrix

New Year Fails 5

Marlow Rowing Club Boxing Day Quads


A new year rolls in and once again time to recount my failures of the year. As it happens I did write down a list of about a half dozen things that I wanted to achieve in 2014. The grand total achieved…zero. The good news is that none of them are out of the running. They are all viable candidates for 2015. Have I made progress? Yes.

What do I learn looking back on these aspirations? 1. Some things take longer than you hope at first. 2. I did many things that I never anticipated last January which filled my year with unexpected new growth and experiences.

For example, this time last year. I was happily in my tenth year of coaching rowing for Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School, but an opportunity came up to help out with the new Pararowing programme at Marlow RC. Moving to MRC both introduced me to a whole new type of coaching (more individual with more advanced athletes rather than throng of very young novices) and also got me onto the water rowing myself more than I have been in years (going out in single scull sessions). In fact, I finished the year with one of the most prestigious losses of my sporting career. Our scratch quad lost to Sir Steve Redgrave’s in the final of the MRC Boxing Day Quad’s event. If you are going to lose a race, then lose it to a legendary Olympian.

In 2015, I will take a page from Katie Ledger post “New Year Resolutions (Aagh!)” for some resolutions that have some real potential for success…

  • 2. Embrace A Little Insecurity
  • 6. Embrace Procrastination–Because It Might Make You More Productive
  • 11. Don’t Listen To These Happiness Myths, And Know The Power Of Negative Thinking

Happy New Year!

It’s a Dirty Job But


I got it wrong about a lot of things. Not just the testicles on my chin.” – Mike Rowe.

Happy Labor Day Americans. Time to take a day off to toast hard work with a beer and hot dog. To celebrate the good…and the bad. The dirty and difficult bits that, really, makes it ‘labor’.

No better expert on the ‘dirty’ side of work than Mike Rowe, star of “Dirty Jobs”. His TED talk “Learning from dirty jobs” examines the best bits about the worst work, and underscores a premise I have written about repeatedly of embracing the failure of dreams

What would happen if we challenged some of these sacred cows? ‘Follow your passion.’ We’ve been talking about it here for the past six hours. ‘Follow your passion.’ What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s probably the worst advice I ever got. You know…follow your dreams and go broke.”

Rowe’s advice echoes similar words of wisdom I got from my university police chief (where I worked as a security guard to pay for school), “There is no perfect job.” There is always some element that is a trade-off. And part of the reason we get paid money to do the job, is because there are a whole bunch of people who don’t want to do it so badly that they will pay to avoid it.

He talks about a millionaire pig farmer. “He didn’t ‘follow his passion’. He looked where everyone was going and he went the other way.”:

“I talk about some of the other things that I got wrong. Some of the other notions of work that I have just been assuming are sacrosanct. And they’re not. People with dirty jobs are happier than you think. As a group, they’re the happiest people I know.”

People confuse “Lottery Ticket Winner” as a viable career choice. Unfortunately, “lottery ticket winner” is dressed up in the guise of legitimate work with job titles like “pop star”, “model” and “professional athlete.”

Rowe elaborates further in this post “A Fan Asks Mike Rowe For Life Advice… His Response Is Truly Brilliant”:

“Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.”

And the delusion of the “dream partner” can pose all the same problems as seeking the “dream job”…

“Claire doesn’t really want a man. She wants the ‘right’ man…She complains about being alone, even though her rules have more or less guaranteed she’ll stay that way. She has built a wall between herself and her goal. A wall made of conditions and expectations.”

Enjoy your beer for tomorrow we work.

Be Hard on Your Dreams


Tim Minchin isn’t shy about kicking off a quarter-life crisis for college graduates out there. He delivers one of my favourite speeches is to the University of Western Australia centering largely on the rampant destruction of young dreams…

  • You don’t have to have a dream.  Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams.  Fine, if you have something that you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of, like in your heart – go for it.  After all, it’s something to do with your time.  Chasing a dream.  And if it’s a big enough one, it will take you most of your life to achieve  so that by the time you get to it and you are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you will be almost dead so it won’t matter.  I never really had one of these dreams so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short term goals.  Be micro-ambitious.  Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you.  You never know where you might end up.  Just remember that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery.  Which is why you should be careful of longterm dreams.  If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”
  • Don’t Seek Happiness. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content.
  • Remember, It’s All Luck – You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces…Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate. Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.:
  • Be Hard On Your Opinions – We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege. Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts…Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.”

These sentiments were echoes by a series of tweets by Marc Andreessen this past week which counselled…

  1. Thesis: “Do what you love” / “Follow your passion” is dangerous and destructive career advice.
  2. We tend to hear is from (a) Highly successful people who (b) Have become successful doing what they love.
  3. The problem is that we do NOT hear from people who have failed to become successful by doing what they love.
  4. Particularly pernicious problem in tournament-style fields with a few big winners & lots of losers: media, athletics, start-ups.
  5. Better career advice may be ”Do what contributes” – focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs. just one’s own ego.
  6. People who contribute the most are often the most satisfied with what they do – and in field with high remuneration, make the most $.
  7. Perhaps difficult advice since requires focus on others vs oneself – perhaps bad fit with endemic narcissism in modern culture?
  8. Requires delayed gratification – may toil for many years to get the payoff of contributing value to the world vs. short-term happiness.

Fail At Almost Everything

Scott Adams failure book


I prefer to embrace my ignorance…I might be one of the least credible people on Earth.” – Scott Adams

One of my favourite writers devoting an entire book to the concept of embracing failure. Such an insightful and enjoyable read that I have bought several copies to give to friends and family. It is definitely the book that I wish someone had given me when I was young. This un-self-help book has more gritty smarts than most buzzword rehashing guru tomes. And it’s funny to boot.

The centrepiece of the book is the notion that “Goals are for losers.” Like much of Adams’ caricature drawing illustration, it is a bit of an exaggeration to make a point. The moral of the story is really that the means matter more than ends. Not so much a Zen-like “the journey is more important than the destination”, but more “focusing on the journey gets you to the best destination.”

Often the Leadership/Management debate is frames is framed along these lines, ie. Leaders pursue ends, Managers pursue means. I’m not a fan of that delineation nor would I think Adams would be given his flag-bearing campaign waged against managers (well, at least the pointed-haired ones)

Adams also goes into a range of topics such a diet, spasmodic dysphonia and affirmations which are intriguing in their own right. His concept that “energy levels” are a critical success factor in life reasonates with my life experience and parallels a number of management gurus (eg. Marcus Buckingham, Mike Pegg)

But the highlights were of course his giant bear hug embrace of failure which I’ve excerpted a few choice selections below…


  • Over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it…Pretty much everything I know about grabbing failure by the throat and squeezing it until it coughs up a hairball of success.”
  • Failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight.”
  • I’ve long seen failure as a tool, not an outcome.”
  • Becoming stronger is obviously a good thing, but it’s only barely optimistic. I do want my failures to make me stronger, of course, but I also want to become smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier, and more energized. If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so that I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.”


  • If you think I’m full of crap on any particular idea or another, there’s a healthy chance you’re right. But being 100 percent right isn’t my goal. I’m presenting some new ways to think about the process of finding happiness and success.”
  • Humility is your friend. When you can release your ego long enough to view your perceptions as incomplete or misleading, it gives you the freedom to imaging new and potential more useful ways of looking at the world.”
  • Most successful people had to chew through a wall at some point. Overcoming obstacles is normally an unavoidable part of the process. But you also need to know when to quit. Persistence is useful, but there’s no point in being an idiot about it.”
  • “When it comes to the topic of generosity, there 3 kinds of people in the world – 1. Selfish, 2. Stupid, 3. Burden on others. That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish…If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to societyIt’s useful to think of your priorities in terms of concentric circles, like an archery target. In the center is your highest priority: you. If you ruin yourself, you won’t be able to work on any other priorities. So taking care of your own health is job one. The next ring – and your second biggest priority – is economics. That includes your job, your investments, and even your house…If you don’t get your personal financial engine working right, you place a burden on everyone from your family to the country.”
  • Most people think they have perfectly good bullshit detectors. But if that were the case, trial juries would always be unanimous, and we’d all have the same religious beliefsWhen it comes to any big or complicated question, humility is the only sensible point of view.”


  • ’Wow, That was brave,’ is the best and cleanest example I’ve seen in which looking at something in a different way changes everything. When the instructor switched our focus from the student’s poor speaking performance to her bravery, everything changed. Positivity is far more than a mental preference. It changes your brain, literally, and it changes the people around you. It’s the nearest thing we have to magic.”
  • My experience with hypnosis complete changed the way I view people and how I interpret the choices they make. I no longer see reason as the driver to behaviour. I see simple cause and effect, similar to the way machines operate. If you believe people use reason for the important decisions in life, you will go through like feeling confused and frustrated that others seem to have bad reasoning skills.”
  • When politicians tell lies, they know the press will call them out. They also know it doesn’t matter. Politicians understand that reason will never have much of a role in voting decisions. A lie that makes a voter feel good if more effective than a hundred rational arguments. That’s even true when the voter knows the lie is a lie.”
  • (over 4 pages, he lists all of the “Cognitive Biases” found in Wikipedia to underscore the point)


  • If you want success, then figure out the price, then pay it.”
  • Another clue to talent is tolerance for risk…I was willing to take a significant personal risk for my so-called art, and this was in sharp contrast to my otherwise risk-averse lifestyle. People generally accept outsized risks only when they expect big payoffsWhere there is a tolerance for risk, there is often talent.”
  • “I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn’t ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt a player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking until you get lucky. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed. All you have to do is stay in the game long enough.”

Embracing Brutality

Gapingvoid - I cant take this


Happy Anniversary Gapingvoid. 13 years ago today, Hugh started sharing his artistic inspirations with the then emerging digital world. His posts have inspired and illustrated many of my pieces on this blog. Foremost certainly has to be the area on “dream bubbles.” His own New York City dream had to die for his London-Marfa-Miami dream to come alive…

  • “This serigraph is one of the first Jason and I did together, back in 2009…The original business-card cartoon dates back from early 2000, which was a VERY hard year for me. This is what I wrote about it at the time: ‘There are many advantages of getting older… more money and respect from the world at large being the main one. However, with all this newly found cash & kudos comes the idea that maybe the world isn’t such a nice place, after all. That maybe all that unhappiness you see on the faces of your fellow commuters is there for a reason. And no matter how much you try or how hard you work, none of that will ever change.’ Still, I suppose it’s better to know that said brutality exists, rather than burning all those calories pretending it doesn’t. I just wish I’d wised up a decade earlier than I did.”

Pathos of Things

Cherry blossom


Oliver Burkeman is becoming a bit of a bard of the breakdown. His latest Guardian article on embracing failure “Happiness is a Glass Half Empty” featured an intriguing concept…

  • “There is a Japanese term, ‘mono no aware’, that translates roughly as ‘the pathos of things’: it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life’s impermanence – that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth.”

He echoes something my best man, Rev. Clifton Thuma, shared with me back at university. What makes giving a bouquet of cut flowers special is there impermanence. Yes, they are beautiful, but if they were not impermanent, after a few giftings, most people would have all the flowers they needed in life. They are given and treasured for the fleeting time they grace our spaces.


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