A man who did his duty on earth

A man who did his duty on earth

Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit)That’s how Nelson Mandela said he wished to be remembered.  It’s common to talk about following your passion, and using the word ‘passion’ conjures not only positive intent but also a happy, even easy life in its pursuit.  Though the people we remember, those we would describe as remarkable, who impact our lives whether on the world stage as the great leader of a country, or just the lives of one or two, they don’t seem to follow the easy life.

The Free Dictionary suggests synonyms for passion including fervour, fire, zeal and ardour – these get closer to a better definition for me.  If it is to guide our contribution to the world, then surely that is something about which you would have fervour, fire, zeal and ardour.

The great man used the word duty.  In our world of autonomy, where we may feel we have a right to happiness, duty is not a word we often use.  Following our passion suggests that we make the world fit our needs, the needs of self, which we sometimes shorten to ‘selfish.’  Duty suggests the opposite – serving, doing what is right irrespective of the personal consequences.

But then, passion is used to describe the final path to crucifixion took by Jesus Christ, on his path to save.  Nelson Mandela, as prisoner 46664, somehow found it in himself to take the road of peace – he chose to love his aggressors rather than to fight them.

Perhaps passion is the right word, and it’s simply about direction; a passion for others, for compassionate justice, for peace.

The world may have lost a great man last night, but we are blessed and forever changed by his passion to do what was right, and we live with a better world because of a man who did his duty on earth.


Happiness at work – a bit squishy?


Happiness remains a somewhat controversial word when applied to the workplace.  I don’t think it should be, but there is this sense that being happy is something you do after work.  Then, there’s the problem that describing happiness often involves words like emotion, and feeling – surely all a bit squishy for the workplace?

We don’t usually mind talking about performance, mental toughness, drive, achievement and a slew of other words that convey resilience and action.

The problem is that as human beings, our most influential driving force comes from a well developed part of the brain called the Limbic system – a combination of interlinked structures responsible for emotion, behaviour, motivation and long term memory, among others.  The way we behave, make decisions, take action, respond to challenges, and much more is highly influenced by our Limbic system….

Or should I say, our performance, mental toughness, drive, achievement and resilience are highly influenced by the part of the brain that appears to have primary responsibility for our emotional life.

But let’s not forget the brains executive function (there, back with more comfortable words), in the pre-frontal cortex (pfc).  This comparatively modern part of our brain is associated with consciousness, self-control, language, and many other things making it the ultimate seat of the rational human.  This then, surely, is the part of the brain we take to work, the all powerful.

Hmm, just like the Wizard, Oz, it’s mostly a deception.  In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt evolves a number of existing analogies of the relationship between the limbic system and the pfc, culminating in something along these lines… imagine yourself as the rider of a large elephant.  With some work and training you can sometimes get the elephant to go where you’d like it go.  But, if the elephant decides it really wants to go left when you want to go right, left it is.  In this analogy, you are the rational pfc, the human rider, and the powerful elephant is your limbic system.

The psychiatrist advising the incredibly successful British cycling team, Dr Steve Peters, uses the analogy of a chimp, a human and a computer to describe the limbic system, pfc and the supporting memory; described in his book The Chimp Paradox.  Where the mental skill in performance is managing the chimp, which he says “[is] an emotional skill – it’s no different to a bike skill.”  So, if you’re an elite athlete, clearly your physical state is critical, but to win also requires emotional skill.

Happiness comes when the chimp is happy, or when the elephant is happy to go with your flow.  When you understand how to manage your emotions, you’ll find yourself spending more time in a constructive positive mood, which is conducive to higher creativity, improved relationships, less negative stress and ultimately higher performance.

So, perhaps we’re unaccustomed to thinking of happiness, emotion and feeling in the workplace, but there’s nothing squishy about them – well not if you like the idea of high performance anyway.  I’m reminded of one of Tom Peters sayings “hard is soft, and soft is hard,” referring to soft things like the customer experience being the real hard data of a business.  Much the same is true with emotion, the real hard data of employee performance, may well be happiness.

Be remarkable,

Employee Engagement or Happiness?


Employee engagement is the single most important aim of the work we do at Reach Remarkable – after all, other than sleeping, working is the thing most of us do, the most, for most of our lives… and so enjoying it is key.

But hang-on, I just implied that employee engagement is analogous to enjoyment.  Is it?  The term ‘employee engagement’ is a somewhat organisation centred one.  Organisations also have ‘human resource’ departments, and often consider ‘human capital’ as a business investment.  A business may want its leaders and human resource department to maximise the return on the human capital investment, and one way to do that is by creating employee engagement.

Whereas, I’ve not worked in a team that considered itself in such a way – even though we understand the perspective.  Of course, we’re people, with needs, desires and goals as well as business commitments and scorecards to track.  Engaged employees get something from their work beyond an income, something that relates to them personally.

If you ask us as employees what we want from work, external rewards like being paid are of course required, but assuming that, responses quickly move to intrinsic or internal rewards.  We hear responses related to achievement, meaning, feeling useful and valued, enjoyment and even happiness.  And this last one is often used like a summary… “I want to achieve something, something useful, make a difference.  At the end of the day I want be to happy, and work is an important part of that.”

So, if I need a quick summary it’s that – organisations want to benefit from employee engagement, and people want to benefit from being happy.

Be engaged, err, happy, ahh, remarkable,

Boosting Self-Control


In the last of my current series on self-control, let’s focus on how to boost it.  Fortunately, there appears to be several ways to manipulate or improve ones self-control.  The first is perhaps the most obvious…


It’s not terribly surprising that the more motivated you are do something, the stronger your chances of actually doing it.  If you decide at work that you’ll follow-up on your actions straight after every meeting, rather than waiting for them to build up, a recent opportunity for promotion (or indeed, for demotion) is likely to increase your chances of actually doing it, over simply deciding that it’s a good idea.

Doing some form of regular exercise is a common challenge. The discipline needed to regularly perform your new exercise regime needs to last long enough for the regime to become part of your daily routine.  Whereas we all know that exercise is good for us, often that isn’t motivation enough.  But, what if you are doing it for someone else?  What if you want to stay healthy in order to take care of your family, perhaps to be around long enough to see your children make good lives for themselves?  Each time you face a struggle to exercise, remember who you’re doing it for.

Related to motivation is seeing the big picture.  In the moment back at work where you’re faced with checking your email or following up on those meeting actions, the email might be the easy option.  But, considering the big picture: when will you do the follow-up, what’s the impact on you or your team of doing the follow-up, how will you feel at the end of week if these actions are out of the way, what do they mean to your career, etc..  Seeing the big picture, can give you the jolt of motivation you need, to stick to your promise to complete your actions straight after the meeting.

Whatever your approach, considering and even manipulating your motivation can be a useful tool to fight the urge for instant gratification over the longer term good.


I briefly covered this in “Why does the chocolate win after a hard day?Roy Baumeister and colleagues created the analogy of a muscle to self-control strength.  One thing we know about muscles is that when they work they use energy, and at some point you have to stop and eat to refuel.

Just like the Judges making parole decisions (“Even Judges decision making ability fades”), making hard decisions often requires self-control, to properly examine all the options and avoid procrastination, which burns energy, just like a muscle.  So, after using it for a while, you need to take a break and refuel your energy reserves before exercising it again.

I like the idea that the original experiments investing self-control and energy, used Lemonade as the fuel – sweetened with either sugar (giving an energy boost) or an artificial sweetener (no energy boost).


Continuing the muscle analogy, you can build strength through exercise practice.  For example, Megan Oaten and Ken Chang, researchers in Australia showed how practicing self-control in money management, or regular exercise or by students following a structured study program, could build self-control strength.  Following one structured approach (e.g. monitoring finances), built their self-control muscle such that it benefited other areas of their life – for example the students following the study program consumed less alcohol and caffeine, smoked less, increased healthy eating, monitored their finances, and it even helped them do more household chores!

The self-control exercise doesn’t have to be terribly meaningful.  Here are some of the tasks that have been used to exercise and build self-control: setting yourself the task of sitting up straight, not using slang words, using a non-dominant hand for regular tasks like cleaning your teeth and regularly practicing the stroop test.

One of tips that comes out of the many studies considers that, because self-control is both general (it’s the same self-control that helps you follow-up on boring actions, and go to the gym) and it depletes with constant use, you should only tackle one new self-control testing thing at a time.  If you want to start an exercise regime, don’t try and change your diet at the same time.  Working on one thing, will initially conserve your self-control strength for that one thing, and at the same time, will increase it’s strength. So once you’ve followed your new regime long enough for it to become a habit, you’ll be in a good position to take on a new, perhaps tougher, challenge.

Good luck boosting your self-control, remember it’s one of the most important, general strengths there is!

Be remarkable,

Beyond willpower to auto-pilot


So, we’ve seen that we have a finite reserve of willpower or self-control, and that it’s related to our energy levels, that even the most experienced decision makers run out of the self-control required to make decisions.  But also that strong self-control can leads to a more successful future!

Then I introduced Mark Richardson, who was able to stick to tough long term goals, leading him to the 2012 Ironman world championships.  So if it’s finite, and even the best struggle maintaining it, how on earth can it be used to achieve a 10 year goal, and ultimately a more successful future?

Major long term goals help set a direction, and you work in that direction bit by bit, day by day.  So, firstly, use your self-control to achieve the toughest tasks each day that will move your forward… before it runs out.  Or as Brian Tracy wrote about in Eat That Frog! if the first thing you do each day is eat a frog, it gets easier from then on.

Because self-control is an expensive activity, using up precious energy, wouldn’t it be nice if we could avoid dipping into those limited reserves, particularly when doing something regularly like training for Ironman, or writing, or running quality meetings?  This is where our ability to adapt and learn, coupled with our brains natural desire to avoid expending excess energy come to our rescue.

Our brains have an adaptation mechanism we commonly call habit forming.  Simply summarised, repeated exposure to an activity in tandem with a trigger, like getting out of bed or preparing for a regular meeting, combine to form a habit – when I get up I put on my cycling gear, drink some water and go for a ride.

When you start doing your new desired activity, it’s hard.  It takes self-control, sometimes copious amounts.  But after a period of time – shorter if you really want to do the task, longer if you don’t – your brain adapts to the behaviour.  This adaptation removes some or all of the need to consciously drive yourself, a new habit is formed, you’re away on auto-pilot.

People with high self-control are more successful at forming good habits – they stick to their tasks long enough for the adaptation to occur.

So boosting your self-control muscle is worthwhile, and we’ll look at that next.

Be remarkable,

Ironman shows us what determination can achieve – what it takes to be remarkable

Ironman Hawaii Swim start

Mark Richardson at 46 years old, is married and continues to enjoy a successful career as a sales manager in a large software business.  He’s doing well, but that’s not what makes him remarkable.

In 2003, aged 37, he’d achieved a five year goal of competing in his first Ironman competition.  When he had set the goal for this race (back in 1997), the effects of concentrating on his career were showing not just in the pounds in his pocket, his weight was reaching a tipping point he knew had to change.

Being able to compete in an Ironman competition is a goal that few of us will attain, requiring the athlete to complete a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile cycle ride and to warm down competitors have to complete a full 26.2 mile marathon run. And let’s not forget it’s a competition – so not only are there no breaks in-between each of these individually gruelling activities, you’re also trying to catch the athlete ahead of you, or stay in front of the one who’s chasing.

As with any sport, but particularly in endurance, Ironman is more than a purely physical challenge…

  • There’s the obvious competitive angle – expend too much energy in holding your place on an uphill cycle challenge, or not trying quite as hard as you could have at the start of your swim (see the heading photo!), can have major consequences.
  • Then there’s hydration – drinking too much or too little, too soon or too late can be devastating.
  • Refuelling  – sugary drinks, natural high-energy foods, or high-tech glucose sachets, get it wrong and you’ll just fade away.
  • What about climate, particularly if you’re competing in a different country.

And alongside all of this, there’s the game going on in your head.  Evolutionary science would tell us that our bodies are designed to move, that the modern sedentary lifestyle is our downfall.  Walking a few miles a day and dragging back dinner is one thing, and Ironman is quite another.  Paula Newby-Fraser was a previous Ironman world champion, experienced, extraordinarily fit, doggedly determined, but she has also shown that even the best can get it wrong, captured in this incredible footage of the last mile of her race in Hawaii, 1995:

So, although Ironman is not the only extreme endurance sport (I’ve seen the blisters of a 250 mile desert challenge), it’s up there.  Back to where we started, Mark built his endurance sufficiently to compete in his first Ironman in 2003 – alone a remarkable feat.  But my fascination with Mark’s story comes not from his race endurance – it starts after that 2003 race. 

Finish low2Yes, remarkable achievement goes together with passion, positivity and purpose.  Your purpose might be as simple being able to afford your own home, be healthy enough to take care of your children or to change the world for the better – purpose is personal.  The point I want to highlight is that remarkable achievement takes a long-term commitment, an endurance of a different kind, continually drinking from your reserves of self-discipline.  The goal that Mark set for himself back in 2003 was to make it to the Ironman world championships within 10 years.

Remember, at the time he’d just completed his first Ironman, aged 37.  For most of us, competing in a single Ironman would be a challenge too far.  But he set the 10 year goal, and stayed doggedly with it.  He describes the goal as being like a self-cantering compass in life.  Helping him get up on cold, dark winter mornings to push out another 20 miles; through thousands of hours of training, competition and injury, day, week and year after year – that is remarkable.

In 2012, Mark found himself at the start line of an Ironman in Hawaii.  Almost ten years after setting the goal, he had qualified for and was competing in the Ironman World Championships… and yes, he finished, you can see him in the photo crossing the final finish line.  And true to form, he set himself another goal – to get on the winners podium for his age group, firstly at any race and secondly at the world championships (an improvement of 35 places).

So, how’s your determination, your self-control and ability to commit and stick to your plan over the long term?… Remarkable I hope.


Even Judges decision making ability fades


I never really thought of my decision making capacity as something that gets depleted by using it.  I’ve certainly experienced that ‘brain dead’ state where making decisions seems hard, but I’ve always associated that with simply being tired, and everything is hard when I’m tired (well, except sleeping).

But a better way of thinking about our capacity to make decisions, is that it’s like a muscle.  Exercising it helps to improve its capacity, and using it means it gets tired and needs recuperation.

In 2011 Shai Danzigera, Jonathan Levavb, and Liora Avnaim-Pessoa published research about judicial parole decisions after studying 1,112 rulings over 10 months.  These were experienced judges, used to making hard decisions that may have a profound effect on peoples lives.  But it seems even they suffer from decision making fatigue.

Apart from the details of case, the researchers knew the order and time the prisoner appeared in front of the parole board, along with their break times and the outcome.  They summarise the results in a very revealing graph:


The vertical axis shows the proportion of favourable decisions, a higher value means a higher proportion were given parole; along the bottom is the position or order of the hearing, and the small circles are food breaks – breakfast, late morning snack and lunch.

In summary – a prisoner seen just after a food break, has a much higher chance of being granted parole than a prisoner seen just before a break, even if their offense and record are very similar.  Judges are human, and even their decision making ability, as practiced as they are, depletes.  What does that mean for the rest of us?

Exercising our self control, making decisions or otherwise using up energy erodes our decision making capability. Being forced to make decisions in this state pushes us towards taking the easy or safe option (denying parole is a ‘safer’ option than allowing it) – and we often don’t realise it.

I’ve heard many times that good leaders have the ability to make fast decisive decisions.  Don’t let your ego fool you into that trap when your decision ‘muscle’ is tired. Good leaders make good decisions, and one of them might be to take a break!

Be remarkable,

P.S. I highly recommend the book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, “Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success”, my inspiration for this post.

Marshmallows and your future

The Marshmallow Test

How can marshmallows possibly relate to your or my future?  If you’re unfamiliar with what has become a classic piece of research, the core experiment is brilliantly illustrated in a modern version recorded in the video.  It was originally devised by Walter Mischel and colleagues in the 1960’s to test the self-control of four year old children, and their ability to delay gratification – or specifically delay eating the marshmallow put in front in them while they were left alone for up to 20 minutes, in order to receive the reward of another marshmallow.  In other words, eat one now or wait and have two. 

The children involved in this simple test of willpower have now been studied in several follow-ups, and it proved to be surprisingly predictive of future success – including better education achievement, higher self-esteem, ability to cope with stress and mental health – and the follow-up continues as they age.  It’s one part of the puzzle that demonstrates why self-control is such a valuable strength.

Be remarkable, hang-in-there for two marshmallows,