Monday, 28 May 2012


Why is the world so obsessed with averages? Averages are so, well, average. Yet they are all around us.  People seem to live their lives by them like some kind of mystical guide to all things...what's the average height, weight, IQ, age, chance of x or y. They've even got their own law!

The irony being that we're all holding ourselves up to these averages, which by their very nature don't actually exist as real examples.

If you take a load of pretty coloured paints, and mix them all up in a big bucket, you end up with some kind of nondescript munge coloured plop. A munge coloured plop that doesn't actually exist as a standalone paint colour. That's what averages are for me.

Except the nice pretty paints don't go around berating themselves because they're different to the munge coloured plop. They continue to celebrate their uniqueness. Well, I expect they would if they weren't inanimate paints. But you get the point.

It starts even before we're born. Our due date is based on the average pregnancy and on our mum's average cycle. As soon as we're born we're compared to the average weight and size and then our mums are harassed by health visitors if we happen to fall outside of the magic averages or if we end up on the wrong place on the magic averages chart. She must be feeding us too much/too little/wrong. Heaven forbid we're just following our own little growth plan and not the one on their stupid chart.

At school, all the hundreds of individual children who pass through and who sit tests and exams are boiled down into one big melting pot to give us an average grade, an average pass mark. Fall under the curve and you're a bit of a thicko, above it and you're a geek. Average is the place to be safe.

and boring.

Science is obsessed with averages too.  There are even at least three different sorts of average to play with. Everything has to be plotted on a graph so a nice neat curvy line can be drawn roughly through as many dots as possible.  Nevermind about all the dots the line doesn't pass through. They must be anomalies, little weirdinesses we don't need to worry about.

Don't we!?

Surely it's these weirdinesses that are the interesting bit?

Personally, I am not concerned with averages. Or being average. I don't understand the point. If we're going to strive to something or compare ourselves against something, why not choose excellence rather than average?

At work I have been given two different bits of advice by different people. The first was to try to care less about stuff. The second was not to live every day like it was a performance review.


Firstly, why would I want to care less about things? Ok, I get it, caring too much about stupid little things that you can't change isn't helpful and that's probably what the advice was really. But suggesting that somebody like me try to care less is like asking Monet to leave off the water lilies for a bit. Ain't gonna happen.

Secondly, why on earth wouldn't I want to give every day my utmost? Why are there a million and one quotes about dance like nobody's watching and all that jazz if the way to get the best out of life was to just sort of mosey on through giving an average performance every average day? Sorry, but if I get hit by a bus (or any number of other quite average ways to cark it), I want to pass on knowing I gave it my best shot. Every day.

I don't understand why striving for anything other than average is not only not commended, but in many situations is actually criticised.

So, I have a message for all the propagators of average:

My name is Emma While, and I am not average. I am a high achiever, get over it. What's more, I've decided I'm no longer going to apologise or be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of my non-averageness. Instead I am proud.

And anybody who doesn't like it can just average off.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

strength training

I wrote a post for our blog at work the other week about playing to your strengths.  It's such an old, well established concept, but how many of us actually do it? In our work or in other areas of our life?

The thing is, as human beings we are, it's true, wired to focus on what we might see as negatives, or weaknesses rather than to focus on all the good stuff, which is a bit of a pain in the proverbials really. But we can rewire the way we think. Neuroplasticity says so and positive and organisational psychology show that if we do, our overall happiness, our productivity, efficiency etc increases. Thank goodness for that, because it really does get quite tiring and depressing going on about how rubbish we are at stuff all the time.

The other thing our funny little minds are quite good at is making stuff up. There will be things you think you're no good at just because that's what you've always told yourself (maybe because either you tried it once or somebody else told you you were no good at it and you just believed them). These are known as limiting beliefs and they hold you back. Since doing my NLP course I've become more finely tuned to the amount of times I notice people saying "I can't..." "I don't think I'll be able to..." and so on. LIMITING BELIEF alert. Oh, and obviously when I do it myself, but think that's a whole other post! Language and what we tell ourselves is SO important. Our silly subconscious doesn't know the difference between something that's true and something you've invented in your own mind so the more you go around talking about how rubbish you are at something, the more it will just become true.  Next time you catch yourself talking about something you can't do, just check if it really is true or just something you've always told yourself and then go back and correct what you said if needs be.

On the other hand, you might just be right, you might just be rubbish at it after all. And that's ok too.

I read a post on Moodscope the other day that said something along the lines of "do you think Usain Bolt lies awake at night worrying about not being any good at trampoline?" which I loved!

There really is nothing wrong with having weaknesses, in fact it's healthy to recognise what they are, admit we have them and ask for help and support in those areas. I'm not massively good with admin, for example. Of any description. But I know it needs doing and I hate for it not to be done. I used to get annoyed with myself over this and tie myself up in knots putting it off, doing it all slapdash just so it was done and so on. Then I just thought, hang on, this isn't a strength of mine, but it is a strength of other people's. Why waste time getting annoyed with myself and trying to force myself to get better at this when I could be doing things I am good at, and let somebody else who excels in this area help me and get it done quicker and better than I could. Phew.  I read an article about how Mark Zuckerberg, an introvert, made sure to partner up with an extrovert who could go off gallivanting around schmoozing and signing deals so he could stay safely holed up in his office focussing on what he did best. Perfect.

So it is fine to not be good at everything. Just accept it, get over it and get on with what you ARE good at. It is much more motivating. That's the point of teamwork...whether it be at work or in other relationships and situations...everybody brings different skills and strengths to the party so why not let everybody stick to those individual strengths. Much more efficient, effective, productive and fun.

Do you know what your strengths are? Really? I made a list of mine, it was quite interesting and took quite a while and lots of head scratching and crossing out. But it's brilliant now to be able to recognise what they are. The advice is that once you know your strengths, to make sure that you are then practising them all the time, honing them and putting them into good use for both yourself and everybody around you as much as possible. Which makes a lot of sense, it's not rocket science is it!? we just need to remember to do it!  If you're a manager of people, there's a big lesson in team management here too.

Which is obviously, to find people better at trampoline than you!

Saturday, 19 May 2012


It's not exactly a secret that being nice to other people makes us feel nicer about ourselves. We've all heard of karma and the idea that what you give comes back around and so on and so forth. But it would appear that it is now official that actually giving to others is linked to our own happiness.

I've read quite a lot on this from various different places, giving to others is one of the pillars in the science of happiness. So I thought I'd try it for myself. Thing is I've never been stingy with my money or my time in the first place. In fact I've been known to give so much of both to others that I haven't left enough for myself. Where money is concerned,  I've always been happy to buy more than my fair share of rounds on a night out, to subsidise people who might otherwise not be able to join in and so on. But if I analyse this giving, it's mostly because I wanted to do whatever it was and needed not to do it solo. Or I wanted to stay out drinking so kept on buying drinks so people would stay with me. Those things might count as being generous but I think smack more of desperation, of having a bit of an addictive personality more than about being nice. I also donate to loads of charities. Alex even commented on this in his wedding speech. I can't watch children in need or comic relief without finishing the evening a good £50 lighter. Which is all great but it's hardly taxing is it signing a direct debit and letting it quietly leave my account every month. My time is a different thing. I'm quite carefree with how I spend that too, lending it out to all and sundry. This is because I'm not very good at saying no and because I really do like to help people and end up feeling guilty if I don't for some reason or other.
So, I decided to start giving to others and doing things for other people for no other reason than that it would make both them and me feel nice. To do it having made a purposeful choice to do it for its sake, not just because I'm weak willed or profligate with my spending.

I started small. I bought a few people at work a coffee apropos of nothing in particular. It made them smile, and that made me smile.  I told random people I liked their cardigan, or whatever and bestowed smiles on strangers in the street...its amazing how people react to these things! Then one day I walked past the big issue lady outside M&S in Maidenhead and, out of habit, shook my head at her and walked past. Then I stopped and thought, why not? So I went back and for the first time ever I bought a Big Issue.  I have never seen somebody look so thankful as she did, and that made me smile too. I gave my tickets for the Thich Naht Hanh talk away, instead of selling them or letting them go to waste and it was lovely to hear how much the lady who took them enjoyed the evening. And then, having walked past the same guy asking for change near Paddington every single day for the last 6 years, I went into Costa Coffee and loaded £10 onto a gift card for him. Ok so £10 isn't very much, but it's more than he would have had otherwise and at least I know he'll get £10 worth of food and drink. I made out to him that I just had it and would he like it...he would, very much so, he was chuffed. He hasn't asked me to spare any change since, he just tells me to have a good day.

These things have all lifted my spirits and made me nice and smiley. I wouldn't have thought that one good deed would be enough to permanently raise my happiness scores for good, but over time these things must add up and I for one will be making sure I keep at it.

Interestingly though, there is a flip side to this.  In the last week I have read two different articles about the other side of helping others. One was about volunteering and said the best volunteer work actually involved the beneficiary of the work in the process in some them a role to play. Otherwise they can be left feeling more down and a bit redundant. So we need to be careful when offering to help that we're not making the person we're helping feel useless and helpless. I thought this was a good point. The second I read today on my daily MoodScope email and it said this. That, according to a clinical psychologist, the best way to help a friend who is feeling low, is not to help them at all, but to ask THEM to help YOU.  Now when you think about it, this makes total sense. Firstly because getting them to help you gives them purpose, gets them active, takes their mind off things, gets them involved...all things we know from psychology to have a positive impact. But also because we've just established that helping other people is one of the pillars of if we really want to help people feel happier, we just ask them to help us...and then everybody's happy. It's like some beautiful virtuous circle of help and happiness.

And this is a very important lesson for me, because whist I have always been willing to help everybody else, I am not at all good at asking for help myself. I think I know what my homework for this week is... 

Sunday, 13 May 2012


Just wanted to share this...Gandhi said it a lot better than me

Saturday, 12 May 2012


One of the findings of the science of happiness into the habits of happy people, is that caring or compassionate people tend to be happier.

Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are all based on compassion.  In fact Buddhism teaches loving kindness to all living things.

The Dalai Lama said "if you want to be happy, practice compassion"

Which is why I am proud of a trait of mine that others may call soppy or daft.  It is a trait that had me in tears a few months ago when I accidentally hit a pigeon in the car, and which had me elated with happiness a few moments ago...which I will explain in a minute.

I just don't like hurting other living things. It makes me sad.

You can call me a hypocrite if you like, because I do actually eat meat. I can't rationalise that. Except if I'm forced to try and apply rational thought to something quite emotional I might come up with the fact that the animals I eat are (as far as I know) killed in a humane and pain free way and I generally don't enjoy eating things with more dubious journeys to my plate.

I have to say, I'm actually like it with flowers too.  If I hurt or break a flower or plant by accident that also makes me sad...yet I happily eat fruit and veg to my heart's content. I put that down more to a regretful sense of the transient nature of beauty and life, as opposed to any compassion for the 'feelings' of the flower itself.

Anyway, back to creatures. We have wasps nesting in our roof. They fall out into the house all angry and hungry and on a mission and Alex has a phobia of the things. So sharing a house with them isn't particularly practical. I have actually been stung in my attempts to banish them from the house and remove them from his presence. But sometimes there's just nothing for it but to get rid of them altogether. And by that I mean kill them.  Wasps don't have many redeeming features, but I'm not massively comfortable having to kill them. I'd really rather not.

Especially when they turn out not to be a wasp at all, but a little bee!

and that's what happened earlier today.

Alex was sitting nearest the open window and in flew a buzzy thing and up he leapt. I sprung into action and swiped at it with a magazine. A miraculous first hit, it fell out of the air and onto the sofa. And horror of all horrors it was a poor innocent little bee and not a wasp at all.  I was horrified! They're endangered enough as it is without me randomly killing them.

What followed was probably intensely puzzling for many other people, but deeply important for me.  I will try to cut it short.

I scooped up the patient...incapacitated but not dead...and took him outside, where he flopped about in the manner of something not doing particularly well or having full use of its limbs. I then sat and watched him for I don't know how long. I honestly don't know how long, I was totally absorbed in just wiling the bee to get better. It was panting and heaving and waving its antenna around frantically, but not going anywhere. Some time later a few ants launched an attack and the bee's furry little legs suddenly sprung back into action, kicking and flicking about all over the shop. I found a pine needle acted as a good ant prodder and joined the fight on the side of the bee. Clearly where I had deposited the patient was not at all safe. I offered him said pine needle and he grabbed on so I moved him over to some nice purple geraniums. Where he again did a particularly pathetic impression of a  bee and just sort of hung there limply.  I continued to sit and stare at him...he was probably just terrified of my giant face and wanted me to go away. So I did. Oh, after moving him to a different geranium and trying to shove him inside it, it just looked safer.
 I don't know if he was grateful. He just sat there. Again. Then I went away. I texted my step mum (bee keeper extraordinaire) for any bee resuscitation tips and she said to feed him some water with honey or sugar. So, I got him a little picnic ready and went back out to see how he was doing. He was moving! He had crawled out onto the top of the flower. hurray. I tried to shove the honey and water at him but he just kept lolloping away. Eventually he stuck one little leg on it, then tried to fly off. He landed again about 3cms away. He tried that about 8 times, with me trying to feed him honey in between. Eventually I think he got so fed up of being force fed he just upped and left. He flew off up, higher and higher into the air, without falling back down again, buzzing away merrily, and then he buzzed right off altogether.

HURRAY! the bee lives on. I hope he will be ok now.

I was so happy I ran round the house shouting to Alex about it and had to write a post straight away.

So there we go. My experience of compassion and loving kindness for all living creatures (even wasps) as ingredients in the big melting pot of happiness.

PS obvs I took a few photos of the bee while it was on the recovery ward, would have been (bee-n! ha ha) rude not to really :)

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Take back control

You're running late. It's chucking it down with rain and you have a really important meeting. The trains are all delayed by some kind of wrong leaf or snow variety on the line. You'll take the car. The car won't work. Bum.

How do you feel?

What about this one:

You've got to go visit your mother in law to help with some chores. It's a beautiful sunny day, you've got a new book you'd like to read and a nice bottle of wine in the fridge. You really can't be bothered to go. But off you go out the house to drive over there anyway. But the car won't start. Excellent, you'll have to cancel. Shame.

Now how do you feel? probably quite different to the first example!

I think this tells us three things.

1. Our external 'problems' are in fact not really the problem at all.  It's the unpleasant feelings we attach to the external event that is the real the 2nd example, no unpleasant feelings, car breaking is therefore not actually a problem. The real problem was in our head.

2. The context or the 'frame' is crucial

3. Put both together and we see that really we have the ability to choose how we react to the external situation. We can choose not to experience unpleasant feelings to the car breaking down, we can choose to reframe it, we can decide to not let it be a problem.

I know in the first example the car breaking seems like more of a problem than the second, but that's only because of how we've framed it in our heads. The mother in law might not agree. And anyway, is it really the end of the world if we're not at the meeting? Is there a bus?

Our brains are pre-programmed to hone in and magnify the negative, it's true, but we don't have to be a slave to that. Once we realise that our choices are much wider.

In fact, our brains are reframing all the time without us realising it.  For example, read the following:

Billy was on the way to school.


She was worried about the maths lesson


She wasn't sure she could control the class again today


It wasn't really the dinner lady's job!

What did you notice? Did you have to keep flipping the image or story you had conjured up in your head as you read on? Did a little boy trotting down the street flip to a girl? and then a maths teacher? before resting on the dinner lady?

We conjure stuff up in our heads all the time. Nothing is as it is, it is only as we see it. So choose to see problems differently and they can stop being problems at all.

In fact we can choose to see them as opportunities, to solve something or work on some part of ourself or discover something new...if we want to.

In the example earlier, maybe the car breaking on that morning was a sign for us to take our foot off a bit at work, to slow down a bit, to realise the world won't stop just because we're not at one meeting. Or to point out that walking to work wont do us any harm...or whatever.

The point is there are always other ways of looking at it, other perspectives.

I know this sounds trite, daft, bloody obvious and all sorts of other things, but when I started to get a grip on this one, it made a whole world of difference. A previous post about my laptop breaking is a good example...that wasn't really a problem at all. It got fixed, for free, I just had to use a different computer for a few weeks. Big deal. Another is the torrential rain this week. Pain in the proverbials. Or is it? Alex always says there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. So I bought some wellies and a hooded poncho. The rain has been reframed and is no longer a problem.  Actually it's quite fun now.

Clearly it's not always that easy, mind. But it's a start isn't it?

It's true it is very hard to change the way we feel, but it tends to be what we're thinking that leads to how we're feeling and with practice we can change that.  Just like we can train our muscles if we keep practising our exercises, we can do the same with our minds.

There are more types of 'unpleasant' feeling than I care to think about right now, sadness, fear, injustice etc. But if you boil them all right down, they probably all come back to anger in one form or another and anger is a particularly unpleasant, unhealthy place to be.

We can normally tell when anger is approaching. Maybe we start tensing up, our breathing quickens, we can feel our blood starting to boil.  At that point, rather than leap head first into that feeling and let all hell break loose, we can take a deep breath, take a step back, ask ourselves if there's another way of looking at this.  

It's a bit like the advice about never replying to an annoying email straight away, in the heat of the moment. You're always advised to go away from it and come back again when you've calmed down before you press send. So, next time you're about to react in a big fact angry old way to something, walk away and regroup a little before you press send on those messages from your brain to the rest of your body.

I remember when I first tried to do this.

There was a girl at work who always got my back up. I found her rude and unpleasant and she always made me feel totally idiotic and insignificant which in turn made me act totally idiotic in her presence. (Of course I now realise it was me making myself feel like that in her presence for some reason and nothing to do with her at all).
One day I did some work for her. I spent ages doing it, put a load of effort in, pulled out all the stops and made sure she had it ahead of schedule.  She didn't respond. Since it was for an important meeting I wanted to make sure she actually had it so I approached her to ask if she'd seen it.  Before I'd even finished asking the question she snapped at me that she'd decided not to use it and with an obnoxious flick of her hand dismissed me.
I trundled off.  I started to feel all sorts of different things. Indignant, embarrassed, pathetic, annoyed, upset....angry.  How dare she? Why had I bothered?  What's the point etc.

But then, remembering the lessons I'd been reading about, I forced myself to consider if there were any other ways of thinking about this. It then struck me that actually, she was probably just super super busy and stressed, about to go into this horrible meeting.  She was in the middle of rehearsing what she was going to say and the MD had probably just changed everything at the last minute, including whether or not to include the thing I'd written. The printer was probably broken for a change too.  Suddenly I just felt sorry for her and relieved I didn't have to go into the meeting myself.  I sent her a little good luck vibe instead of the daggers I'd be gearing up for.

Ten minutes later she came over, apologised for being such a grump, said thank you for my work which was just what she'd wanted and was so brilliant they were making it into a standalone thing to send along afterwards and was I around later to discuss.

Ha! I had read the original dismissal totally wrong but luckily had reigned myself in enough to be able to respond politely when she came back over.

I can remember feeling quite shocked that the whole reframing thing had actually worked and all that time I'd be going around in a mood with her when I could just have got over it instead. It was totally up to me.

My mum always says, if you have a problem with somebody, it's your problem, not theirs. It's up to you to do something about it, not them.  It's true.  We need to take responsibility not just for our problems, but for how we react to them. Change that, problem solved.

To be fair, there are times you might just really want to be in a mood at something, it's quite therapeutic sometimes isn't it? Well that's fine long as that's a choice you're making, as long as you're in control of that...just know you do have a choice, and you can take back control.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

values part II

I don't feel as if I've finished with the whole values piece yet so have decided to write another post. With two aims really. One, to actually consider what I mean by values and two to consider what mine are.

So, firstly, I think values are qualities or beliefs that we feel are worthwhile or meaningful...or an organisation feels are meaningful. Or a political party, charity etc. Kind of like a philosophy. They kind of set our priorities and act as our driving force, define how we behave and guide us.

This is what I was referring to in my last post.  If we know what ours are, we'll find it easier to navigate life's myriad of choices. We can work out what's meaningful to us and then work out how to go about putting it into practice, and in my very simplified version of what happens next...we end up happier than otherwise.

I can see why, I can see a number of sort of scenarios where this would certainly help me anyway.

For example...I am pretty crap at making decisions. Either I take ages to make a decision in the first place, or I make a quick one then wonder if I made the wrong one. There's a lot going on here around fear, lack of trust and blah, but if I had a set of motivating values or priorities by which to make my decisions it might make it a bit easier or at least appease that bloody George (see earlier post!) jabbering on at me afterwards that I'd got it wrong.  Same goes for inner conflict...essentially another form of decision making nonsense. Then there's a sense of fulfilment and achievement, a sense of direction, a sense of having 'come home' and so on.

So I decided to make a list of my values. And here they are:


There's a lot there! But they're all important. I'm going to spend some time thinking about which are at the top of the list.  If you fancy having a go yourself but get a bit stuck, just Google 'personal values'...there are lists of common ones online you can look at to see which resonate for you and go from there.

So, now I consciously know what's important to me, if I find myself with a decision to make I can sense check if it's in line with my values. Or if I start to feel a bit squiffy or out of sorts, I can have a think to see if something is out of line with what I believe in. And as soon as I spot something has gone awry I can make steps to make it right again.

Phew, that feels better :)