Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com A Guide for Anxious Humans Tue, 06 Jun 2017 08:20:55 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Have Fun, For Fun’s Sake! http://www.walkingoncustard.com/fun-for-funs-sake/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/fun-for-funs-sake/#comments Tue, 06 Jun 2017 08:20:55 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2618 [This relatively sensible post was originally written for puttylike.com]

I often feel pressure, like questions are burnt into my brain by endless repetition:

Am I contributing to the world right now?

Am I making enough money?

Am I deepening myself, learning new skills and growing as a person?

You might think that achieving …

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[This relatively sensible post was originally written for puttylike.com]

I often feel pressure, like questions are burnt into my brain by endless repetition:

Am I contributing to the world right now?

Am I making enough money?

Am I deepening myself, learning new skills and growing as a person?

You might think that achieving any of these goals would be sufficient, but sometimes even when I manage one of them feels like it’s not enough. While I’m learning something valuable, I still feel pressure that I’m not contributing, or earning, or… or… or…

Part of me sometimes feels like I need to be contributing to the world, earning money and bettering myself, all at once.

This makes relaxation a little tricky, to put it mildly.

Must We Do Anything?

Each of the pressure questions contains an implied should. And each of these shoulds is important. Of course we all want to make an impact on the world, to be financially successful, and to grow. But a life spent purely in service of should is draining.

It’s also important to give ourselves permission – at least sometimes – to simply have fun.

The prevailing culture looks down on fun. We’re made to feel like productivity is the most important goal, which all other goals must be subservient to. BOW TO THE GODS OF PRODUCTIVITY, O MEASLY HUMANS.

But productivity and self-care/happiness/fun (however we want to think about it) are equally important.

(Arguably, if it’s a happy life we’re after, fun is even more important than productivity. As Alan Watts points out, if we work to earn money just to finance our lives so we can go to work… what’s the point?!)

To counterbalance valuing productivity above all else, here are some ways to give ourselves permission to have fun. Fun for no reason. Fun for it’s own sake.

NOTE: This isn’t so we can re-energize ourselves in order to be more productive. That kind of thinking is part of the problem: it still makes productivity the highest goal! We don’t want to put fun in service of productivity. For a moment, I want to allow fun to be the Highest Good.

Learn for No Reason

Do you have an interest that you never let yourself play with because you “can’t justify” it? Ever say to yourself, “learning to sew would be fun… but it won’t help me,” or “dance classes won’t make me better at my job”? Or anything like that?

Take the pressure off, and stop justifying every use of your time in productive terms. Give yourself an hour. Learn something for no reason at all. It’s alright!

Create Without Purpose

There’s something beautiful about monks creating mandalas – amazing artistic works made in sand – only to destroy them afterwards. The mandalas serve as a reminder that nothing is permanent. I like that the monks decouple the act of creation from any need to be anything in particular.

In a similar vein, you could:

  • Write without worrying if anyone will like what you’re writing.
  • Paint without wondering if anyone might pay for your painting.
  • Create without fearing that anyone might even see your creation.

It’s freeing, healing, and inspiring to create without purpose (and if you accidentally create something amazing to share with the world, that’s a fantastic bonus).

Rest Without Guilt

I’m sure we all know this, but guilty rest isn’t restful.

It can be hard to truly switch ourselves off, especially if we’re in the habit of living with constant internal pressure: that litany of shoulds in our heads.

Of course, rest can be difficult for external reasons too – juggling work, family, and routine. But whatever your circumstances, you can surely find at least a few minutes (or hours, or even days) to allow yourself to rest.

However long it is, try marking that time out in your schedule, vow to ignore any internal pressure, turn your phone off, and have a little guilt-free rest.

I’ve noticed just how resistant I am to this idea, even though I know it’s good for me. Sometimes we have to get over our resistance in order to live more healthily.

Free Yourself from “Should”

If we’re in the habit of shoulding ourselves, it feels unnatural to stop justifying everything we do. But there’s no justification needed. There’s no must. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just play.

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Work = Accomplishment – (Creativity & Nourishment) http://www.walkingoncustard.com/work-accomplishment-creativity-nourishment/ Wed, 31 May 2017 20:05:26 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2594 “Work is accomplishment without creativity or nourishment”

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“Work is accomplishment without creativity or nourishment”

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You Can’t Not Do Things, You Can Only Do Them http://www.walkingoncustard.com/cant-not-things-can/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/cant-not-things-can/#respond Wed, 17 May 2017 15:16:30 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2589 [Another quick post today.]

Sometimes it seems as if the solution to a problem is to NOT do something.

For example, if our problem is “I can’t stop thinking about this person” it might seem that we simply have to stop thinking about them.

Obvious, right?

No. Actually, that’s impossible.

“Stopping thinking about somebody” isn’t …

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[Another quick post today.]

Sometimes it seems as if the solution to a problem is to NOT do something.

For example, if our problem is “I can’t stop thinking about this person” it might seem that we simply have to stop thinking about them.

Obvious, right?

No. Actually, that’s impossible.

“Stopping thinking about somebody” isn’t an action you can do. It’s an absence of an action, not an action itself.

So when we try, we are doomed to fail. We focus on the one thing we can’t do, and end up doing it.

(The classic example of this is: ‘don’t think about orange elephants’. If you really manage it, you’re not actually paying attention to the instruction.)

Instead, we have to reframe the plan as an action you CAN do.

For example, “stop thinking about this person” becomes “think about something else”, which IS an action.

Instead of focusing on NOT thinking about this person, we consciously put our minds somewhere else (perhaps by getting absorbed in a film or a book or a conversation or exercise or whatever).

This works for all kinds of negative actions.

If you’re ever trying to STOP doing something, remember you can never NOT do something… but you CAN do something else.

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Do More Things You Enjoy http://www.walkingoncustard.com/do-more-things-you-enjoy/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/do-more-things-you-enjoy/#comments Wed, 03 May 2017 07:31:02 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2595 [SUPER QUICK POST]

Today, some Incredibly Obvious Advice Which I Always Forget.

You know those things you enjoy doing?

(Perhaps you don’t. For me, modern life often turns into a kind of repetitive drudgery where days blend into one another. Even so, there’s usually something at some point lately which brought some joy. It’s useful …

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[SUPER QUICK POST]

Today, some Incredibly Obvious Advice Which I Always Forget.

You know those things you enjoy doing?

(Perhaps you don’t. For me, modern life often turns into a kind of repetitive drudgery where days blend into one another. Even so, there’s usually something at some point lately which brought some joy. It’s useful to notice “what’s been fun, joyful, enjoyable, good lately” every now and then.)

Here’s my suggestion: try and do more of those things you like.


Lately, I noticed that there were a few simple activities I had really enjoyed – meeting new people, live music, turning off social media – and I thought “I should probably do that more often”.

And instead of ignoring that thought and just carrying on with my standard routines, I’m making an effort to consciously include more of those things in my life.

Even if the net result is a single extra coffee, or conversation with a friend, or one piece of music I wouldn’t otherwise have listened to… even just one extra thing I enjoy means my life is slightly happier as a result.

In case you want to use this Incredibly Obvious Process, it’s this:

  1. Recognise things you like
  2. Do more of them
  3. That’s it.

Good luck! And let me know if you do anything good as a result of reading this post – I’d love to hear it 🙂

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Do You Plan, Ruminate, Worry, Poke, Prod, and Fumble? How to Stop Overanalysing Your Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com/plan-ruminate-worry-poke-prod-fumble-stop-overanalysing-life/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/plan-ruminate-worry-poke-prod-fumble-stop-overanalysing-life/#comments Fri, 31 Mar 2017 07:56:41 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2580 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

I’ve been planning to write this post for approximately seven years.

Every possible paragraph has been carefully researched. Each of my thoughts has been studied intensely by a number of focus groups so that they are perfectly formed.

(In fact, the focus groups were themselves chosen …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

I’ve been planning to write this post for approximately seven years.

Every possible paragraph has been carefully researched. Each of my thoughts has been studied intensely by a number of focus groups so that they are perfectly formed.

(In fact, the focus groups were themselves chosen by focus groups, although it took me several months of careful focus-grouping to realise that that was the correct strategy.)

As such, I am confident that this post is the very best it could possibly be, except-

Wait.

Maybe there’s an angle that I haven’t yet even considered. I need more thinking time. I’ll get back to you soon…

Trapped in Over-Analysis

I hope you don’t experience such extreme over-analysis as above, but you might still recognise this common trap.

In place of action, addiction to over-analysis leads us to endlessly plan, ruminate, worry, poke, prod, and fumble. (Note to self: are these the best possible words to use? Be sure to research this thoroughly!)

Here are some common symptoms of over-analysis, along with some ideas as to how each could be alleviated:

1) Needing to Have All the Answers in Advance

It’s easy to believe that you couldn’t possibly begin until every last question has been investigated, and every final detail has been decided. An eye for detail can be a strength, but when misused, it only provides the perfect excuse for inaction.

Escape this trap by: Only planning the most crucial details in advance. Allow some details to be filled in on the fly: trust your future self to handle it!

2) Asking for Endless Second Opinions

Okay, so your careful research has indicated that twenty people like the sound of your project. That’s great! But… what if the twenty-first person doesn’t like it? Better keep asking… just in case someone, somewhere, doesn’t like it.

Asking others for their opinions is useful and important, but there has to be a stopping point.

Escape this trap by: Having confidence in yourself and your ideas. Recognise that not everybody needs to like what you do; as long as somebody appreciates your work, that may be enough.

3) Perfectionism

“Every little detail must be perfect before we start. What colour will the border be on the logo? Should it be two pixels wide? Or three?! WE CANNOT POSSIBLY LAUNCH UNTIL WE KNOW THIS.”

Escape this trap by: Reminding yourself that it’s better to have a product out there with an imperfect logo (or to accept a job offer that’s slightly imperfect, or whatever) and then change it later if necessary.

It’s usually okay to make necessary course corrections later, and it’s better to have something than nothing.

4) Being Unable to Tolerate Uncertainty

Sometimes I get stuck because I’m seeking something I can’t possibly have: a cast-iron guarantee of success in advance.

Escape this trap by: Reminding yourself that crystal balls don’t exist, and that a little failure usually isn’t the end of the world.

(And if failure would be the end of the world, perhaps that’s a sign that you’re biting off more than you can chew. Is it possible to scale down to a level where failure doesn’t mean certain doom?!)

5) Overuse of Lists, Systems, Tools

Systems are great, but we’ve all heard of the student who spends all their time making a revision timetable and never doing any actual revision.

Escape this trap by: Reviewing your use of time. A good rule of thumb could be that no more than 10% of your time should be spent making systems; 90% should be spent using those systems.

(Of course, pick a percentage that works for you. A good rule of thumb is never to blindly copy anyone else’s rules of thumb.)

The Main Thing: Act!

All of these ideas push us towards action and away from rumination. Planning is wonderful, but when it becomes endless and unproductive, we need to escape the over-analysis trap and get started.

Once you’ve determined that you’re doing analysis unnecessarily, take your first step of real action, and trust that the preparation you’ve done will make the second, third, and following steps smooth enough for you to handle.

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How to Write a Great Non-Fiction Book, Probably http://www.walkingoncustard.com/write-great-non-fiction-book/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/write-great-non-fiction-book/#comments Sat, 25 Mar 2017 18:41:30 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2567 Instead of my usual musing about anxiety & brains & life & things, today I’m going to answer some questions I got sent about how to write a book.

Specifically, my correspondent wanted to know how to write a great non-fiction book.

Before you say it… god knows why they came to me.

I …

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diary writing by freddie boy, on Flickr; how to write a book

Original Photo © Fredrik Rubensson, froderik on Flickr.
CC BY-SA 2.0

Instead of my usual musing about anxiety & brains & life & things, today I’m going to answer some questions I got sent about how to write a book.

Specifically, my correspondent wanted to know how to write a great non-fiction book.

Before you say it… god knows why they came to me.

I certainly don’t claim to be a world expert in writing non-fiction. At best, I’m probably the world’s foremost humorously custard-based mental health writer.

Even so, my comedy book about anxiety has been surprisingly successful, so perhaps something in my experience might be useful to somebody.

As I started replying to the email, I realised this might benefit from being more widely shared. So here we are.


How to Write a Book, A Bit:

1) Outlining the book is one thing I’m struggling with, how did you outline your book? (e.g. did you plot your personal story on a story arc to help shape the book?)

One of the goals of Walking on Custard was to put into logical order everything I’d learned about anxiety.

In other words, if I went back in time to when my anxiety was at its worst – what would be the FIRST thing I ought to teach myself?

And then what would be the next thing? And so on…

That’s because in real life, the journey was far from smooth. I learned many useful lessons, but all out of order. I got a little lost, many times.

So the book was to make sense of that journey, and sharing the benefit of that experience with others.

Specifically I realised that I needed to start with ‘myself’ – the internal, mental issues like ‘how does my brain work’, ‘how do I relate to myself’, ‘what do I have control over’, etc.

After that it made sense to expand outwards to other people, then to goals and desires and systems, and eventually all the way to death and the meaning of life itself.

So that “zooming out” from inside myself outwards to the wider universe became my structure.

I listed the topics I wanted to explore, and put them into order: from deep internal fundamentals, right the way out to the deep mysteries of the universe.

Of course, that specific ‘how to write a book’ advice isn’t transferable directly to any other book, but I think the process is reproducible, and goes something like:

  1. Consider the number of ‘steps of inference’ required to explain your idea. (i.e. what’s the FIRST thing someone needs to learn to understand your main idea… and then the next, then the next…)
  2. Come up with an overarching structure that provides a narrative to your idea.

2) Non-Fiction books can read a bit dryly, how did you ensure an exciting reader journey?

I’ve always had a drive to make jokes, and I usually struggle to keep humorous observations out of formal work I’m doing. But because this was MY book, I didn’t censor myself. Instead, I turned my natural impulses up to eleven.

This meant I did things like include little fantasy stories which helped to illustrate what I was talking about. If I felt like putting in a story about a wizard in between chapters about psychology, then I did it.

Naturally, I was worried about this.* I was concerned that ‘being myself’ could be annoying, but in the two years (!!!) since the book came out, not one person has complained to me about this.

* (Of course, “naturally”, I worried about everything, hence the anxiety in the first place. But you know what I mean!)

I think readers respond to authenticity, which comes from us being genuinely ourselves.

Of course, that means we won’t appeal to everyone, but sometimes fear of ‘putting people off’ leads us to tone ourselves down. If we do that we end up not appealing to our natural audience, instead creating something that’s tolerable to everyone, but exciting to no-one.

In my case, I suspect that for everyone who is put off by my humour, somebody else finds a book which really speaks to them. My favourite compliments are when I’m told reading the book felt like they’d made a friend. I put enough of myself into it that it felt that they were really talking to me, which is just what I’d hoped!

So the answer here is simply: be yourself, as hard as you can.

That’ll be very different to me being me, or other authors being them. And that’s fine. Some people will love your style, others will be put off, but that’s fine too!


3) When you shared personal struggles with your audience and how you overcame them, were they given raw, detailed exposures?

If you’ve read Walking on Custard you’ll see that I shared some very raw, difficult moments. Not just the suicidality and anxiety, but also the vulnerability of recovery.

I felt this was necessary to tell my story. I didn’t want to gloss over the hard parts.

And I very much didn’t want to paint myself as some ‘perfect guru with all the answers’. Instead, I wanted to demonstrate that it’s possible to struggle with anxiety while writing a book about anxiety… and that that’s fine! Part of the point was to show that anxiety doesn’t need to stop us from doing big, scary, vulnerable things.

Plus any dodging around the issue would be so obvious: “I had anxiety and it was bad, and here’s my tips to handle it” might be fine, but isn’t especially compelling.

As a practical tip for this, I found that it helped to be vulnerable about the vulnerability itself.

So as my Inner Critic piped up in my head while I was writing – “you suck, this book sucks” – I responded by writing the inner critic into the book.

(This really annoyed my inner critic, but helped me to relate to them, and I think it made the book more relatable than if I’d pretended not to have an inner critic in the first place.)


4) How do you move from that personal story to giving someone applicable, or easy to use action steps?

Ha. I have no idea how to answer this.

My style tends to be conversational and silly, so after finishing a vulnerable story I might be tempted to make a joke, or draw a graph about dairy products, or write a parody of a children’s story, and to somehow use the above to provide a practical tip.

I tried to ALSO state plainly what I was trying to say. Usually I’d try to demonstrate every point I was making several times: once in a story, once in some abstract thoughts or jokes, and once just straight up: “So what I’m saying is, doing X helps you to solve Y and it works because Z”.

This wasn’t a strict rule, but I think it worked for me, and kept the book fun while also communicating clearly.


5) What are some good tips for communicating to your reader in a supportive fashion rather than a top-down/”do this”/authoritative voice?

Again, I think this comes down to managing your own ego. I never ever got close to being tempted to see myself as anything other than a human sharing his story.

I aimed to gently offer my thoughts and experiences, and giving the reader space to analyse/accept/reject them as they see fit. If I made the argument well enough, then it would be clear why this particular anxiety tip is useful for them. (Or not, if their circumstances are different, but I usually tried to explore that where possible too.)

My perspective was more “hey, let me tell you some things you might like, and let’s have fun while we talk about it”, rather than “I shall descend from my Holy Mountain and you will be grateful for my wisdom.”

That said, I believe there is a place for authoritative voices too. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve, as well as the exact nature of your authority to speak on any given subject.


6) If you’ve received any feedback from your readers about the story or structure, what would you have done to improve it?

HOW DARE YOU IMPLY MY BOOK COULD POSSIBLY BE IMPROVED

… ahem. As I was saying, managing your ego is important.

Anyway, of course I’m sure there’s lots I could improve about Walking on Custard.

Even on the day it was released, part of me wanted to work on it more, to polish it, to add things, to take them away… but that process can go on forever. Once it reached the point where it was done, anything after that wouldn’t actually have improved it that much.

(In fact, one of the chapters talks about perfectionism, and how ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. If I made it better in one way, it necessarily makes it worse in another. e.g. if I made it more authoritative – now it feels less human. And vice versa.)

But even with hindsight… I don’t think there’s anything in there that I would remove. There are things I’ve learned since it came out that I might add. But on the whole it said everything I had to say at the time, and I’m still pleased with the structure, and the journey it takes the reader on, and the help it provides along the way.

The early drafts sucked, of course, but you have to go through those and keep going until you hit a point where you feel okay with it.


7) Could you recommend anyone I should reach out to with similar questions? If not, any books that have this format that you recommend reading?

This is the hardest question!

I’m not aware of any books with quite the slant of Walking on Custard

(In fact, I’m often asked which shelf it should be found on in a bookshop, and I honestly have NO idea. Is it humour? Autobiography? Self-help? Fantasy fiction? All of the above?!)

But I’m sure I’ve read some great personal books which also provide practical advice. I just can’t think of any off the top of my head.

So what I’ll do is, leave this part of the post open and make a list as they occur to me.


I hope these inexpert thoughts have been helpful! There’s a lot of ‘how to write a book’ stuff out there, so hopefully this can provide a little useful ingredient to you.

I’d love to know if you do find anything useful. And if you have any thoughts, questions, comments, or advice of your own to add, then please share in the comments

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Sort of Fake It till you Sort of Make It http://www.walkingoncustard.com/sort-fake-till-sort-make/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/sort-fake-till-sort-make/#respond Sat, 18 Mar 2017 09:10:50 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2557 [post status: a quick & messy throwaway thought]

It’s a two-way street between our feelings and our actions. Sometimes we perform well because we’re confident, but acting confident also helps our performance.

Hence the popular advice: “Fake it till you make it!”

This advice is popular because it works. Smiling genuinely makes us feel a …

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[post status: a quick & messy throwaway thought]

It’s a two-way street between our feelings and our actions. Sometimes we perform well because we’re confident, but acting confident also helps our performance.

Hence the popular advice: “Fake it till you make it!”

This advice is popular because it works. Smiling genuinely makes us feel a little happier, even if we’re smiling for no reason. Standing up straight makes us feel stronger, and hence more confident. And other people react to the subconscious cues we give off: if we look confident, they’ll treat us as if we are, which makes us more confident. It’s a virtuous circle.

BUT

From a place of unconfidence, “fake it till you make it” can be really intimidating advice.

“You’re saying I have to DO this scary thing AND pretend to enjoy it?!”

This pressure to pretend can add a whole range of complications, from impostor syndrome (“What happens if they find out I’m a fraud?!”) to concentrating so hard on ‘faking it’ we get distracted from whatever it is we’re trying “make it” in in the first place.

Perhaps the answer is to dial it down a bit:

Sort of Fake It Till You Sort of Make It

There’s no reason everything has to be perfect right from the off. We don’t have to give an Oscar-winning performance of Captain Confidence, all shiny-white smiles and effortless success.

It’s perfectly okay to just fake it a bit.

This way, a little sheen of pretend confidence is just another tool in our arsenal, and not an additional layer of pressure to perform.

What does this look like? I guess it depends, but a little extra smile, or remembering to straighten our posture, or saying yes to something we’re not quite sure about – all these small acts of fake confidence without pressuring ourselves if we forget, or let the mask slip for a moment.

(In fact, it’s probably better if the mask slips a bit, as then we’ll see that the perfect performance doesn’t matter as much as we think it does, which can start creating some REAL confidence in ourselves.)

This may seem like the most obvious advice in the world, but to a fellow recovering perfectionist “Fake It Till You Make It” sounds like it requires a flawless performance.

It doesn’t.

Take the pressure off. Maybe sort-of making it is enough for today.

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Do You Feel the Need to Be Impressive? http://www.walkingoncustard.com/need-to-be-impressive/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/need-to-be-impressive/#comments Mon, 27 Feb 2017 08:38:36 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2541 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Hi, my name’s Neil Hughes and, because I’m human, I want you to be impressed by me.

This is a normal urge. We are social animals, so it’s natural to be concerned about our status within the tribe.

Our brains: Am I important? What do …

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

Hi, my name’s Neil Hughes and, because I’m human, I want you to be impressed by me.

This is a normal urge. We are social animals, so it’s natural to be concerned about our status within the tribe.

Our brains: Am I important? What do people think when they meet me?

As ever, there’s both a healthy mindset and an unhealthy mindset about our own impressiveness. Here’s an example of each:

Unhealthy: If I don’t have a massive list of incredible achievements, I am next-to-nothing.

Healthy: Simply following my passions and having fun as I explore my potential is impressive enough.

When we’re in the unhealthy mindset, it can feel as if enjoying our own potential could never be enough, but as soon as you make the switch it seems obvious that we don’t need incredible achievements to be impressive.

Think about the times when you’ve been impressed by people that you’ve met. Were they all world leaders? Famous inventors? The best in their field?

No, of course not. We are naturally impressed when people are comfortable in their own skin and live up to their potential, whatever that means for them.

But it’s not easy to remain in this healthy mindset. Plenty of things can get in the way…

Random person: Hi, I speak eleventy languages, have published whompteen books, and only stop working on my multiple businesses when it’s time to master metalwork. Or whatever else I feel like mastering that day. Before breakfast.

Other people’s achievements can lead to thoughts of inferiority which take the shine away from our own achievements.

Inner monologue: I was really happy when I wrote that blog post people liked, but then I saw someone get a thousand retweets and now I’m convinced that I suck.

But it’s important to remember that our achievements are not lessened by the achievements of others. Winning an amateur football trophy isn’t meaningless just because it’s not the World Cup.

Remember: We Don’t Need to Impress Anyone

When we’re at our strongest, we explore our passions because we want to. Others may not understand why we want to learn to read Old English, or to paint using watercolours, or to grow tropical plants. We know why, and that’s all that matters. It’s not about other people.

Sure, part of our motivation may be to help or entertain others, but it’s still our motivation. When we’re in a healthy mindset, we don’t operate out of a hollow desire to impress, but from a solid core of desire to create something for another.

When we start doing things purely to impress others, we undermine that strength. If we switch our motivation from “this seems cool” to “others might think I am cool if I do it,” we lose sight of our personal growth and enjoyment, which can lead to demotivation and lack of joy.

The solution is to remind ourselves of what we truly want, and to go for it. If anyone else is impressed (and they will be!) then that’s a bonus.

But, hold on… My status-obsessed-primate-brain is objecting again. What about when we encounter somebody who is undeniably doing better than we are? Someone who is simply a better writer, or businessperson, or linguist? In practice, it’s hard to avoid feeling inferior when this happens. So how do we deal with this?

We Decide What Success is

For each of our interests, we get to choose what it means to “win.” Perhaps we won’t be satisfied until we’ve mastered it. That’s fine. Or perhaps we’ll be happy after grasping the basics. That’s also fine.

I taught myself guitar a few years ago. I suck at it.

Really. I’m not just saying that. With a guitar, I am offensive to both music and the physics of soundwaves. I can nearly play a few chords. Badly.

But I’m happy with that. I got as far as I wanted to, and learned about chord structure, which massively improved my ability to play other instruments (on which I am not quite as offensive to all that is good in the world).

Success is what we choose it to be. The only way to fail is to forget that we set the victory conditions, and to falsely believe that we need to impress others to win.

This liberates us, allowing us to both be contented with our achievements and to enjoy the experience of improving. (If you enjoy clichés, you can insert your own thoughts about “journey not destination” here.)

Although… there is one final objection. What if our victory condition truly is “I must be impressively good at this?” Are we cursed with unhappiness in that case?

Our Mental Models of Talent are Skewed

The most visible people in every niche are usually the most successful/skilful. This means that our mental model of others in our niche is waaaaay skewed in favour of people who are more successful than average.

According to Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow), our brains use something called the availability heuristic to make judgements. Our minds take shortcuts by creating a mental model based on the first few examples that come to mind when we think of a specific thing.

For example, if we think of “a tennis player,” we think of people such as Andy Murray, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, but we forget the many (many!) more tennis players who are less talented and who play in their local park instead of at Wimbledon.

If we met every tennis player in the world, we would have a much more accurate picture of where we stand. But we can’t do that, so our brain takes shortcuts and compares us to the most obvious examples – usually the very best!

This makes us feel disproportionately bad about our own abilities.

And this applies in every niche we’re involved in. In reality, we’re probably more impressive than we realise

but that doesn’t matter. If we make impressing ourselves our goal, we will find it much easier to be happier and successful. And, ironically, others will be more impressed by us too.*

* But that’s not the point.

Neil Hughes hopes you liked this blogpost, and thereby validate his existence. Let him know in the comments!

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Jiggling an Imaginary Rope Helps You Re-Evaluate Your Life http://www.walkingoncustard.com/resonance/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/resonance/#comments Fri, 17 Feb 2017 08:11:21 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2491 [Warning: contains mild physics.]

Imagine a short piece of rope. We’ll call him Ropert.

Let’s imagine that Ropert represents our lives.

(Ideally without overthinking why a rope represents anything. It just does.)

There are a number of things you could do with Ropert. Let’s start with the simplest: absolutely nothing. If you simply let …

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[Warning: contains mild physics.]

Imagine a short piece of rope. We’ll call him Ropert.

Let’s imagine that Ropert represents our lives.

(Ideally without overthinking why a rope represents anything. It just does.)

There are a number of things you could do with Ropert. Let’s start with the simplest: absolutely nothing. If you simply let Ropert dangle, then absolutely nothing happens.

If you do nothing, nothing happens.

This is a fairly obvious life truth. What’s next?

Well, what if I started doing the littlest amount possible?

Well, imagine I hold Ropert and move him back and forth VERY SLOWLY. What happens?

The rope just moves along with my hand.

Inner critic: What’s with the unreasonably long arms?! And… is that meant to be a rope moving slowly back and forth? Have you not heard of ANIMATION?

Can you imagine how bad my animation would be, if this is my doodle?

Inner critic: Fair point.

Anyway. Moving Ropert back and forth slowly just… moves him back and forth slowly.

Tiny amounts of effort lead to tiny results

So maybe if I use more effort, I’ll get more results? Let me turn the dial up to MAXIMUM EFFORT and see what happens to Ropert. Imagine holding a rope, and moving your hands back and forth as fast as possible.

In this case, a strange thing happens. Shaking AS FAST AS POSSIBLE makes the tip of the rope remain stationary.

(Don’t believe me? Get a piece of string or similar and try it yourself.)

Inner critic: …

Inner critic: I expected nothing, and I am still disappointed.

The art doesn’t matter. The point is that: MAXIMUM ATTEMPTED EFFORT leads to thrashing around and zero results

The sweet spot, then, is somewhere in the middle.

Imagine holding Ropert and starting out slowly moving him back and forth, and then gradually speeding up.

At some point something strange happens. The rope starts swinging MUCH further than I am moving it. Eventually I find a pace where I barely have to move my hand at all, and the whole rope is swinging back-and-forth at maximum length.

This is the resonant frequency.

When we swing Ropert at the resonant frequency, we hardly have to move our hands at all, but he swings around like a madman. Or mad rope. Or whatever.

The exact right amount of effort creates results much larger than the amount of effort we put in.

Physically speaking, pretty much everything has a resonant frequency. (It’s not always a good thing. This is why sometimes bridges have to be redesigned, because they accidentally vibrate at their resonant frequency in the wind and shake themselves to bits.)

And it can feel as if our lives have a resonant frequency too. Putting in the right amount of effort into everything we do so that it resonates is the real sweet spot.

As we’ve seen, not trying at all leads to nothing, trying too hard leads to nothing and trying just a bit leads to small results.

But finding the exact right amount of effort, applied in the right way, leads to the best results.

What do I do about it?

What we need to change depends on what we’re currently doing.

Are you currently flailing around desperately trying everything you can think of? Maybe you’re in the MAXIMUM EFFORT failure zone, and slowing it down a bit will help you out.

Or are you hardly putting in any effort at all? (This one’s easier to understand – generally we know when we could be trying harder and a gentle nudge would be helpful.)

The key point is that it’s not always true that more effort equals more results. We have to figure out for ourselves how to find our resonance in our own lives.

Does this post resonate with you? (Sorry.) Let me know in the comments!


No cartoon ropes were harmed during the production of this post.

Don’t forget to watch the custard-based TED talk, if you haven’t already! (And if you have, why not tell your friends about it?!)

Or check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.

Like us on Facebook, for more thoughts on happiness.

Read the whole series on Anxiety here.

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Why You’re So Confused About What You Want http://www.walkingoncustard.com/youre-confused-want/ http://www.walkingoncustard.com/youre-confused-want/#comments Wed, 01 Feb 2017 08:04:43 +0000 http://www.walkingoncustard.com/?p=2518 [This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

There’s lots of advice out there on how to achieve your dreams.

But what if I don’t know what my dream even is?! How on earth do I move on when I have difficulty realising what I even want?

Being enticed by every option is almost …

Continue reading »

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[This post was originally written for puttylike.com]

There’s lots of advice out there on how to achieve your dreams.

But what if I don’t know what my dream even is?! How on earth do I move on when I have difficulty realising what I even want?

Being enticed by every option is almost as bad as having no attractive options whatsoever.

(When it comes to making a choice, anyway. From a happiness perspective it’s definitely preferable to have multiple attractive possibilities.)

The Answer Lies Within

I sometimes feel like a broken record. It frustrates me that the answer to so many life questions seems to be “get better at self-knowledge”.

It’s doubly annoying, because I hate being told to get to know myself better! It’s fundamentally irritating advice to receive.

But when it comes to figuring out what we want, of course the answer is lies in greater self-knowledge.

Then again, it is surprising to learn that we don’t know our own desires. Surely our wants should just be obvious?

Because of this, it’s tempting to pile additional frustration on top of the confusion.

Inner critic: Why don’t you know yourself?! Why don’t you know what you want? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!

It’s important not to be too hard on ourselves. Being confused about our desires is very normal. There are many reasons why we might not automatically know what we want…

We Are Made of Layers

A big part of our confusion is that the story we tell ourselves is wrong. We’re not a single, coherent self with obvious and clear goals. We’re a mess of contradictory wants and desires.

For example, we want to spend time lazing around, but we also want to achieve great things with our time. We want to eat as much junk food as we can, but we want to live healthily too. And so on…

For most of our desires, there exists a part of us that wants to do the opposite. This doesn’t make us hypocrites or idiots. It just makes us human.

To clarify these confusions we need to put in some actual work to separate out these different layers, using a combination of gut feeling, intuition, and our rational minds.

Let’s look at what some of these layers might be.

Layer One: Aspirational Wants

When I can’t figure out the answer to a personal question, a useful trick is to take the question one level higher. So “what do I want” becomes “what do I want to want?”

In other words, what would Imaginary Ideal Me want to do with his life?

Sometimes this helps to reveal values I didn’t realize I had. If my answer is “I wish I was the kind of person who wanted to climb mountains”… well, then I AM the kind of person who wants to climb mountains. I just hadn’t realized it.

Discovering our aspirational wants may help bring some clarity to the other layers.

Layer Two: Conflicting Timeframe Wants

Our wants exist on different timescales, and sometimes they conflict with one another.

Maybe there’s a confused contradiction because our medium-term goals conflict with our long-term goals. Perhaps we want to do well in our current job, but that job isn’t taking us closer to our eventual dream. These goals are in conflict.

It’s worth a little examination of how our various wants fit together on different timeframes. If goals conflict, do we want to prioritize short-term, medium-term or long-term gain?

Layer Three: Absorbed Wants

Sometimes we absorb wants from other people. Maybe our parents impressed on us their deep desire for us to become lawyers, and we’ve spent our whole lives being affected by that imprint, consciously or unconsciously.

This isn’t to blame anyone, of course. Parents are free to suggest or even push their kids towards certain careers, but adult children are just as free to examine those suggestions and accept or reject them.

It’s when we’re being unconsciously steered by wants we’ve absorbed from others – teachers, parents, society at large – that we can become confused.

Layer Four: Directly Competing Wants

Once we’ve eliminated some of the above layers, what we’re left with are the things we actually want to do… right?

Sadly, the question still isn’t answered, because the reality is that we can’t have everything we want, and we often have to choose between multiple good options.

Choice paralysis is definitely a thing. Sometimes we resist choosing anything at all because we don’t want to limit our options later. But assuming we’ve worked through this and have accepted that choosing something is better than choosing nothing, we may still have desires that conflict.

I can’t study agriculture AND medicine AND astrophysics (at least, not at the same time!). So I have to choose between them. It’s not my place to tell you which of your wants is best for you. But luckily we’re quite good at choosing between options once we get them on the table.

Once we’ve examined what’s going on inside, we may have a better chance at handling this layer and choosing our favorite option (and don’t forget that we can choose another option later, and then another option after that).

Summing Up

These layers aren’t exhaustive, but once we understand that different factions may be fighting inside us, it makes much more sense that we’re confused about what we want.

Keep in mind that getting to know ourselves and creating coherent goals we care about is the work of a lifetime. You aren’t alone here; we’re all uncovering hidden parts of ourselves all the time.

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