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Handling the bad stuff

Handling the bad stuff

Many people are having a bad time in organizations today. It’s not simply those experiencing budget cuts and lay-offs. Many others are experiencing a deep sense of hurt and loss: loss of much of a life outside of work, loss of their hopes and expectations, loss of their trust in the future, loss of confidence in reaching their career goals. The cruelest hurt is the collective loss of belief that things will soon return to normal. In today’s cut-throat world of global competition and corporate greed, it’s hard to know what normal is.

So many losses at one time are hard to bear. When things go wrong like this, we usually get mad or we become depressed. And because we live in a “can do” society, far more people typically get mad. Anger also has a quality of energy that makes you feel that you’re doing something. Depression may follow, but at the beginning you feel buoyed up by that sense of righteous anger. Of course, to sustain your anger and resentment, you do need a target. You have to be mad at someone or something. So people look around for a suitable scapegoat to take the blame for their disappointment and unhappiness. Where do they find one? “Out there” in the world. The greedy bosses, conniving politicians, job-stealing foreigners, sly financiers, or simply those cursed computers and machines.

I’m not going to excuse those who deserve criticism. But what gets missed is how powerless you make yourself whenever you locate the causes of your hurt “out there.”

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If you excuse yourself from any part in what has caused your hurt and pain, you also cut yourself off from responding in ways likely to make your life better. It may feel as if you’re doing something, but mostly you’re inside your head, imagining what you would love to do to the guilty party—if only you had the chance. Can you change Wall Street’s obsession with short-term profits? Can you you give your Tin Man of a boss a heart? And if you act out your feelings and vent your anger on someone you can get to—maybe your colleagues, your friends, or your family—you will have alienated people who might otherwise have been willing to help. Nothing else will have changed. You still have the problem; only now you have people who feel mad at you as well.

The trouble with blaming “them”—whoever “they” are—is that they are also “out there” where you have no direct control and probably little influence. While you dissipate your energy in resentful complaints and self-righteous demands, “they” are untouched.

A friend of mine has a compelling way of putting this: “Whatever you resist tends to persist.” If you direct your anger at someone, they usually fight back, turning a one-time hurt into an on-going conflict. If you blame impersonal forces, they catch your attention again and again, until it’s easy to believe they’re behind every hurt you suffer. The more you fret and fume about “them,” the more power you give “them” over your life, adding to your helplessness.

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Whatever happens, you always have the power to choose your response. If you can’t change “them,” you can still change yourself.

When bad times come around, try modifying the responses and attitudes “in here”—in your mind and heart —not “out there.” What happens in our lives is a blend of external events and internal reactions, so changing how you react will always affect the outcome—maybe not completely or instantly, but quite certainly.

The next time something or someone seems to be hell bent on messing up your life, try stopping and asking yourself these questions before you launch into the usual indignant complaints:

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  • “What have I done (or not done) that has contributed to this problem?”
  • “What have I been avoiding that I know I should have faced up to long ago?”
  • “What am I postponing that I know I should have done by now?”
  • “What am I blaming on others that I know is down to me?”
  • “What am I going along with that I know I should refuse?”
  • “What am I agreeing to that I know to be false?”
  • “What am I accepting that I know is selling me short?”
  • “What can I do about the things I’ve just discovered?”

Ask the questions in a spirit of curiosity, with a genuine interest in the answers. Don’t add to your guilt or try to beat yourself up over what you find. Guilt is a worthless emotion and beating yourself up changes nothing. The purpose of this exercise is to help you break through the automatic habit of pushing blame “out there.”

Only when can you see clearly what in your actions or attitudes has contributed to the problem can you discover what you can do that will have some chance of producing change. We’ve all done our share of blameworthy things; we’ve all been the innocent victims of circumstance—then made things worse by our response. As long as you deny accountability for your part in how your life has turned out, you’re held fast in pain and loss. Let go of your baggage and move on.

One of the greatest threats we face today is the relentless increase in global whining. Instead, conserve your energy for the positive task of confronting setbacks and exploring fresh ways to move forward. Don’t let anger and scapegoating others make you helpless. Change what you can and work with what you cannot. If you are honest with yourself, you will be surprised just how much falls into the first category and how little into the second.

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Adrian Savage is a freelance writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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