7 Life Lessons From A Skiing Holiday

I’ve never previously skied in my life. So starting at the age of 50 may well have seemed like a foolish idea. I have to confess that skiing has never been a life ambition of mine. However, family duty meant that a skiing holiday planned almost a year in advance was on the cards.
The picture below is us with our instructor, Christoph in early April 2016:

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In total 21 of us with my wife Sally’s family went away to France. We as the Raheja family had never skied before and so it seemed prudent to get lessons and take things cautiously. After a week of learning with my family I was clearly the slowest learner and most remedial skier of all of us. Sally’s family who are all very experienced have been very good at encouraging and being patient with us, especially me.

One week and thankfully no broken bones later here are some reflections and lessons from that time away. My intention is for this exercise in self-indulgence to encourage you in whatever challenges you may be facing:

1. The power of low expectations.
As I mentioned, I really did not know what to expect. However, going into skiing with no preconceived ideas, but simply to embrace the experience for what it was made for an incredibly enjoyable week. There was nothing to compare it to and so we were able to enjoy the time for what it was – a holiday to get away from the usual routines and pressures of day to day life. So often tensions and frustrations arise because of previous expectations that are not realised. It is in that gap between what we hope for and what we actually experience comes so much disappointment and angst. (See Which Way Are You Looking Part 1 and Part 2).

2. The power of being in the present moment.
When you start skiing you have the challenge of a slope to conquer in front of you. You begin to wonder if you are going to be able to get down in one piece without falling or breaking any bones. That does bring incredible concentration and focus on the present moment! So much of our life is spent in preoccupation with the past or thinking about the future. There is something very liberating about being completely in the present moment. In fact all you and I have is the present moment.

3. The danger of comparison.
I was definitely the slowest learner and most cautious skier out of my family (indeed of the whole group of us). By the time I had mastered the slope at the end of the week, I learnt it was called ‘the nursery slope’! I was surrounded by 3 and 4 year olds, many of whom were clearly far more accomplished and better than me at skiing! But that was fine. I had come to learn to ski and certainly not to win any awards. We were there to simply have a good time and that is what we had. Also when you master one slope you find yourself a beginner again on another slope…

4. The power of feedback.
I am so glad we took lessons. At times looking at the challenging slope in front of me, everything within me seemed to say it was impossible that I would be able to do it. However, with the real time feedback from our instructor Christoph, it was so helpful to be told what I was doing wrong (even though there seemed at the time little I could do about it) and be encouraged when I was actually getting it right. What was exhilarating was seeing myself accomplish what only a few hours or a day earlier had seemed impossible. Without the feedback, I am sure I would have just kept falling and got more discouraged.

5. Expect to fall, but then just get yourself back up again.
Learning to ski is all about falling and getting back up to try again. So long as you don’t cause any lasting damage and are away from danger, falling is part of the experience. Yes it probably hurts more (both physically and psychologically) the older you get, but learning from the experience can be so helpful. The important thing is that experience per se is not enough – what makes the difference is evaluated experience. As Churchill said, Success is going from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” By correctly evaluating what went well and what didn’t go so well, it becomes possible to move forward and keep some degree of motivation.

6. Be careful of the story you tell yourself.
When I had fallen down a number of times and started to question whether I could ever master the techniques our instructor was teaching us, I noticed how incredibly easy it was to start a negative story in my head. That story went along the lines as to why I could never learn and also how my poor performance as a skier meant that I was no good at anything.

When this happens over a prolonged period of time psychologists report how this can lead to the state of ‘learned helplessness’. Basically the brain shuts down and stops trying to find a way out of the situation you are in. How does that manifest? The psychologist Martin Seligman talks about the 3 Ps of thinking style that can result and are a hallmark of depressive thinking:

Personal: what that means is that I take the one situation where I am not getting what I want and I explain it to myself in a negative way with me at the centre. There is self-talk of self blame: ‘I am not cut out for this. I am no good at (you fill in the blank)’. The thinking is that I am bad in some way.

Pervasive: instead of seeing what is happening to me as a specific, isolated event, I generalise to the whole of my life. I lose perspective and can only see everything as bad and as a disastrous failure.

Permanent: rather than seeing the frustrating event as a single event in a single point in time, I perceive it as permanent. At its extreme I tell myself there is no hope and there is no reason to hope.

In the severest form this state of learned helplessness can lead to suicide. In the milder form it can lead to a negative outlook and fear of making a mistake or just a bad attitude. That is why when you fail at skiing or any event it is vitally important that you are careful what story you say to yourself. (For more on this see What Story Are You Telling Yourself?).

7. Learn when to say enough is enough.
I can see why skiing can become addictive. The exhilaration of conquering a slope; the beautiful weather and the fun of going down can be so much fun. When you finally master a slope or feel you are close to, you want to keep going again and again. That was certainly my experience. It has been shown that anticipating outcomes, be they positive or negative, leads to different chemical reactions in the brain. When we anticipate a good outcome then this leads to an increase in the chemical dopamine in the brain. Among other things, dopamine helps the brain to be awake and interested, which is very important in overall performance and functioning. Having said that, the desire for that ‘dopamine hit’ can lead to a desire to just keep going and going. You need to be able to say when enough is enough.

Thank you for indulging me in this exercise of self-reflection. Which of these resonate with you?

If you enjoyed this post you may also find of interest 7 Lessons From a Passport

 

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Developing mental toughness

One of the exciting things about watching sport is it can give such a powerful illustration of overcoming adversity. No matter which game or sport it is there is something truly inspiring and exhilarating about watching a player or team turn a situation around that seemed hopeless or beyond rescue.

Recently in the world of T20 cricket in April 2016, West Indies were able to pull off a stunning victory over England in the final when Carlos Brathwaite in the last over was able to hit four successive 6s. What had only a few minutes earlier appeared to be a certain England victory was transformed into an amazing West Indian victory. But that is not the example I want to focus on.

The video below is from the 2001 Wimbledon Tennis Final  between the Croatian Goran Ivanisevic and Australian Patrick Rafter. To put this in context Ivansevic had played in 3 previous Wimbledon finals (1992, 1994 and 1998) and lost each time. Now aged 30 he had slipped to a world ranking of 125 and had only qualified to play at Wimbledon because as a three time runner-up he was entitled to a wild card entry. With the incredible demands on players at this level this would be his last chance at the title.

The video is the last 7 minutes of Ivanisevic playing Patrick Rafter in an epic five-set match at the 2001 Wimbledon Men’s Final. As you watch it get ready to be drawn into the emotional and dramatic final 7 minutes of the match.

This is  arguably one of the most dramatic matches in tennis history with intense displays of passion and emotion. Only twelve points are played, but no more than 7 strokes are exchanged. Ivanisevic serves at over 200km/h both his first and second serve, but becomes the only player in tennis history to miss two match points with double faults. His hunger and desperation to win are so evident as he prays and looks for lucky balls. He starts crying at 40-30, but he needs three more Championship points to finally be able to win the title.

Psychologists agree that what separates the good players from the truly great players at the highest level in any sport is not skill or technical ability, but something described as mental strength. Another way to put it more vividly is the phrase mental toughness.

What are the elements of mental toughness?

Can you find a way to win?

What makes a successful leader stand out from someone who suffers defeat? According to John Maxwell’s 15th Irrefutable Law of Leadership it is simply the unwillingness to accept defeat. To put it more positively, leaders find a way for the team to win. Why? Because the alternative to winning is completely unacceptable to them, they push on through to work out what must be done to achieve victory. When they fall down, they simply get back up again and look for another way to move forward.Sir-Winston-Churchill

The life of Winston Churchill illustrates this. While on the one hand he had an intense long-standing battle with depression and negative thoughts, the experience enabled him to develop a remarkable clarity about the Nazi threat. (See post Did Churchill’s Depression Make Him A Great War-time Leader?) It was in 1932 he was practically a lone voice when he warned:

“Do not delude yourselves….. Do not believe that all Germany is asking for is equal status…. They are looking for weapons and when they have them believe me they will ask for the return of lost territories or colonies.”

There was something about the way he had dealt with his own dark side manifesting as depression that enabled Churchill to see with clarity that no amount of negotiation could appease Hitler. (See Who Would You Choose: Chamberlain or Churchill?)

And when it came to the inevitability of war, Churchill was able to articulate the challenges that lay before the British nation that made clear the huge cost that would be required:

Podcast #016: Harry Potter and the Hindu Priest

No its not the next book!

They say truth is stranger than fiction. In many ways the life story of Rahil Patel illustrates that. To read about it in a novel would sound implausible, even fantastically impossible. And yet here is his life story with such surprising and unexpected twists and turns. But what has this to do with Harry Potter? You will have to keep reading and listening!

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Rahil is of East African Kenyan Gujarati origin. He was brought up in North West London from the age of 5. At the age of 16 he gave a speech in a Hindu temple in London to 3,000 people that won him great acclaim. So much acclaim in fact that the head of the denomination, the Guru, who was there, encouraged him to become a Hindu priest.

And that is what Rahil became. A Hindu priest in a 200 year old denomination with 8,000 centres around the world and 1 million dedicated loyal followers. For 20 years he travelled first class around the world, clocking up 70,000 miles a year and speaking to crowds of thousands.

But at the same time there was a growing sense of inner restlessness and unease. He found himself struggling with doubts and questions. He searched through literature and devoured the Harry Potter series, unpacking for him a fantasy world of friendships and relationships that he previously never knew existed.

It was in 2016 that Rahil did meet J K Rowling and was able to tell her how her Harry Potter books were part of the journey to his spiritual awakening.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves! On this podcast I have the privilege of interviewing Rahil about his life and search for spiritual fulfilment. Do join us in this fascinating discussion that really shows how truth can be stranger than fiction.

After you have listened to the interview with Rahil you may well be interested in his book ‘Found By Love’ that is available below.

How does Rahil’s life story speak to you?

What is the story you are telling yourself?

Our internal stories and maps

We all love to hear stories. Stories are what give meaning and colour to life. I remember how at a very young age one of our children developed a fantasy world with three characters ‘Hobie, Hatsie and Hammo’. Another child created an inner world of two mothers – calling them a ‘white mum’ and a ‘dark mum’. Both these children loved to live in those fantasy worlds, creating stories of meaning and significance to them, even though they were only 3 or 4 years old.

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 15.52.57But stories are not just something for young children. Actually all the time we are telling stories to ourselves. Right now there is a story going on in your mind about something going on in your life. What do I mean?
In life all sorts of surprises and unexpected events can happen. However, as important as what happens to us is our interpretation of what happens to us. The see-do-get model is a good starting point. It is very simple, but also quite profound.

What this says is that the way we see the world (our paradigm) leads to what we do (our attitudes and behaviours) and what we do leads to the results we get in our lives.

That is not normally how we think or how we see change….

Why understanding Easter brings hope

Hope is a funny word in the English language. When we use it in everyday conversation we tend to speak in terms of a vague possibility that may or may not come to pass. So we say, for example, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” It may or may not rain tomorrow and I am not entirely sure what the actual outcome will be. So I use the word hope to describe my uncertainty. But hope is a much richer and deeper word than that.

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In the dictionary, hope is “an optimistic attitude of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large”. As a verb, its definitions include: “expect with confidence” and “to cherish a desire with anticipation”.

The truth is we cannot live without hope. In fact hope is more fundamental than even food and water, as our bodies can survive for a period of time without them. But take away hope and one’s fundamental purpose for living is gone. Without hope even the smallest challenges seem impossible to handle. It can be hard to even get out of bed in the morning if there is no hope. As a psychiatrist in training loss of hope was one of the states of mind we were encouraged to search for in all the patients whom we interviewed. The reason? That loss of hope could be a pointer to a potential risk of suicide.

But when you are filled with hope in the future you can face anything in the present.

In  the early 1930s the Communists in China were in disarray and pessimistic about their future role and influence. On 5th January 1930 Mao Tse-Tung wrote a famous letter called, “A Single Spark Can Start A Prairie Fire,” challenging their doubts and fears about ever taking power. Building on the idea that revolution would come ‘soon,’ (it would be still be another 19 years):

How the loss of a dear friend has challenged me to live intentionally

Drifting, driven or designed?

It is amazing how time rushes by. 17 March 2015 marks the 2 year anniversary of the sudden death of a dear friend of mine, Abhishek Banerjee.

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The memory of his friendship along with the suddenness and circumstances of his passing away has had a profound impact on my own life. (For more on that see the post A Tribute To My Dear Friend and the post In Memory of Abhishek Banerjee (Bunty))

One of the striking experiences of bereavement is that after the initial shock and disbelief, the shedding of tears and the gradual processing of the pain, how life just carries on.

You return to your usual routines and duties. You know you are changed and will never be the same again, but then there is everything else that needs to be done – projects and deadlines, errands and duties that continue on. And continue on and on, never appearing to end…

With the passage of time the person you have lost becomes an increasingly distant memory. Life has to be lived forward, but it can only be understood with reference to the past.

And yet it is also important to remember that life is a gift and must continue be treated as a gift. The alternative is the risk of a growing cynicism, exhaustion or even as Thoreau says, “a life of quiet desperation”.

Two years before he died, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” (For more on Steve Jobs see Lessons On Life From Steve Jobs).

Remembering I will one day be dead sounds morbid, even depressing.  But if you can work through the initial discomfort it can, as Jobs says, bring enormous clarity as to what is really important and what is just trivial. Trust me, I want to encourage you in this blog post and it will get better!

When it really is all about you

The law of buy-in

We instinctively are repelled by people who are self-centred or wrapped up with themselves. But at the same time when it comes to leadership and influencing others, John Maxwell’s 14th law of leadership teaches people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. Getting that order right is so easy to miss and can have huge implications.

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I wish I had understood this many years ago. For a large part of my life I have had the naive assumption that if I could present my case as clearly and compellingly as possible then success was guaranteed. Slowly, over decades, I have learnt it is much more complex than that. I have had to learn the hard way that no matter how good or even right the idea, if there is no emotional connection then there is little if no chance that the idea or proposal will move forward. The reason?

Podcast #015: Why your leadership matters

Leadership. What is it? Why does it matter? How should it matter to you and me? And also why whoever you are and whatever you do, you owe it to yourself and the world to see yourself as a leader.

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These are some of the questions my co-host Andrew Horton and I discuss on this podcast. We unravel some of the confusion around leadership. We also look at why it is not pompous or grandiose to think of yourself as a leader.

We unpack the following definitions:

“Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less.” (John Maxwell).

“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly they come to see it in themselves.” (Stephen R. Covey).

Do join us as we also discuss some examples of great leadership (Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, the Jewish carpenter)  and how service is what underpins true greatness. The greatest leaders have this paradoxical blend of personal humility alongside a ferocious resolve (a professional will).

You may also find of interest the following blog posts linked to this podcast:

Why I Am So Passionate About Leadership

Who Precisely Is A Leader?

Lincoln: How Depression Moulded A Great Leader

Did Churchill’s Depression Make Him A Great War-Time Leader?

Growing In Service And Level 5 Leadership

The Art Of The Basin And Towel

What thoughts and questions does this podcast discussion on leadership raise for you?

What is the ONE essential ingredient for life-long health and happiness?

This 13 minute TED talk video by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger gives a fascinating insight into the vital importance of one simple key ingredient to life-long health and happiness. When you hear what it is you might think that is obvious or even common sense, but then for a variety of reasons it has so often been ignored or even downplayed.

Common sense is not always common practice. In fact, asking millenials (people born between the early 19080s to the early 2000s) what their major life goals are, according to Waldinger, gets a response of 80% saying they want to be rich while for 50% it is to be famous. There is the implicit assumption, reinforced by popular media, that this is where lasting happiness is found. But what does the research say is the one consistent factor to happiness throughout life?

What is that one simple key ingredient? Let me keep you guessing! If you want to know then either watch the fascinating and entertaining video or just keep reading!

First of all the study. It was one of the longest and most complete studies of adult life ever conducted. The study followed two cohorts (that is groups) of white men for 75 years, starting in 1938. Those two groups were: