Making Your String of Pearls – Step 4

Each moment in our life can be a teaching moment, if we let it speak to us. If we stop and listen closely we can find significance, insight and inspiration in even the most mundane events. By comparing and grouping similar moments we can start to see patterns and trends. Those patterns and trends carry our stories – the narratives we construct to give meaning and purpose to our lives. By seeing more clearly how the stories we have been living resonate with our authentic core, we can begin to project our most authentic life’s story forward. Instead of waiting for the next chapter to be written for us, we can author that next chapter ourselves, and then make it happen.

Step 4: Summarising the Essence

Having grouped our shiny pearls, we can now summarise the essence of what these pearls have in common. The idea is to capture not just the facts of those moments (such as the location, actions, actors and situation) but much more the energy, emotions and significance for us, so that when we retell the summary we actually evoke the feelings we had when we first experienced the moments we summarise.

The following questions can help to construct our summaries, but we should be careful not to fall for a strictly formulaic approach: this is about personal experiences, so we should feel free to construct them in a way that feels most powerful and meaningful to us. But these questions are a useful framework to start with. Looking at the group of pearls to summarise:

  • Do they have the same/similar location?
  • Do they have the same/similar actions?
  • Is there a way to characterise the setting?
  • Is there a way to characterise the outcome(s)?
  • What did they make us feel?
  • What about them led to that feeling?
  • What can we leave out without losing the essence of what makes those moments special?

Over the past 35 years I have had many opportunities to perform on stage, either alone or with other people for audiences ranging from a few to a few thousand. The pearls in this group that really stand out are the ones where it is just me and the audience. I am singing a song or doing a monologue but even before I would start I would have this feeling that something special was about to happen. I am standing on the stage, looking around, and feel the anticipation of the people in the audience. I am a little bit nervous, but in a good way, an energising way, that heightens my senses and sharpens my concentration. As soon as I start speaking or singing, I feel connected to the audience: I am communicating with them, not just projecting at them. I feel that I am taking the audience with me on an adventure, and exploration either of the story I’m telling or the emotions I’m singing about. When I’m talking I play with the tempo and volume of my voice, I pause at moments to look around and make eye contact, then speed up to convey enthusiasm and energy and I feel the audience coming with me, as if I have direct access to their emotions and energy.

Bard on stage - ©Amanda Hatten 2015
Bard on stage – ©Amanda Hatten 2015

The best of these moments end in a very natural and satisfying way, with the song or story ending with a feeling of completion and closure, as if there was no better moment to stop than this precise second, and no better way to end than with these very last words. With songs, of course, the timing is as much determined by the music as by me, although with a great pianist (which I was lucky enough to have worked with a few times) I have the freedom to play with the tempo and pauses and the music would follow. But with monologues the timing is completely in my own hands. Especially when delivering presentations, rather than fully scripted monologues, I am in control not just of the timing, but of the very story itself. Sure, usually there are slides that give a pre-ordered structure to what I am talking about, but over time I have learned to reduce those slides to a bare minimum, considerably increasing my freedom to improvise, skip and add anecdotes, examples and even whole lines of thought as I see fit. In the best of these pearls, even though I feel I’m just improvising and saying what comes to mind, there is a strong sense of coherence and rhythm, as if there is a script I’m working from, and the story comes to a natural end at exactly the right time, usually a few minutes before the hard stop most of my performances are set to, so that there is time for the audience to reflect on what I have told them and ask some questions before we have to leave the room.

It is not too hard to see that these pearls have a lot of things in common:

  • The location is a stage (or something functioning as a stage, such as being in front of a group of people in a class-room, standing behind a lectern in a lecture theatre, or standing on a makeshift platform in some venue during an event. Sometimes it’s an actual theatre, though I haven’t performed in theatres that often.
  • The action is me talking (or sometimes singing) solo to an audience of multiple people. It’s a staged performance, in other words I have been asked to perform and the audience has some expectation of what I will talk about or what I will be singing.
  • The setting is of positive expectation: I expect the audience to be interested in what I will be presenting to them, and they expect that to be relevant, interesting, educational and entertaining. There is a clear expectation about the topic and the mode of delivery, and there is predetermined time-frame for the whole thing to play out in. I don’t expect to have to fight for the audience’s attention, or to compete with others for it: they are there because they are already interested to hear what I have to say. Of course, if I perform badly I may disappoint them and lose their interest, but they definitely start with a willingness to hear me out.
  • The outcome of these pearls is a feeling of accomplishment, a happiness bordering on euphoria at times, a deep gratitude to the audience for going on this journey with me, and a sense that I matter – even in a small way – to the world and to my fellow human beings. As far as I can ascertain, the outcome for my audiences is a sense of motivation and inspiration, as sense of having learned something useful for their professional or personal development and a feeling of having spent their time in a sensible, productive way.
  • What exactly leads to those feelings in myself and in my audience may be a bit hard to analyse in detail, but I think what it comes down to is that these moments give me a combination of a few different types of satisfaction, all of which are relevant to me and what I perceive as my mission in life:
    • They give me a sense of accomplishment: of a difficult job done well thanks to practice and preparation;
    • They give me a sense of connection: of reaching out and touching other people’s minds and hearts, even if only for the duration of the performance;
    • They give me a feeling of being helpful and supportive: of bringing useful and practical information and advice to people that – should they choose to work with it – can have a positive effect on their lives;
    • They give me a feeling of being appreciated and respected: of people actively seeking out my insights and advice, rather than having to chase them and beg for their attention.
  • In their most abstracted form, these pearls are all examples of me communicating with groups of people, entertaining them with my stories, educating them with my information and insights, and motivating them to improve themselves with my tips and advice.

What this group of pearls seems to tell me is that being on stage is important to me. But not just being on stage: the most satisfying moments were when it was me addressing an audience directly, moving them with both my messages and my delivery. And it wasn’t only about entertaining them either: there had to be a motivational and educational part to my performance as well, to really make me feel it was all worth doing. Making sense of the world, understanding on a deeper level what is really going on and why and how things are happening, is apparently a core need in me. Being able to help other people with that understanding is a close second, as that links back to my own need to feel useful, as well as my desire to lessen the (often self-inflicted) suffering in the world.

Making Your String of Pearls – Step 2 & 3

We live our lives from moment to moment, each moment an experience added to our personal story. Each moment is potentially a learning moment, if we only we would take the time to find out what it was trying to teach us. The art of living a self-directed, self-authoring life lies not just in living your life to the fullest – that’s just being busy. The real art is to stop from time to time to check each experience against the wisdom and direction of our authentic core. If it resonates with our core, we aim for more of those experiences. If it feels wrong, empty, or somehow not quite what we were supposed to do, we aim to avoid them in the future. And then we adjust our direction, recalibrate our speed, and try again, each time a little bit more on course and a little truer to the journey we came on Earth to travel.

Step 2: Finding Our Moments of Flow

Looking more closely at our collection of the shiny pearls we separated from the dark and dull ones, it will be clear that though all these pearls are bright and shiny moments from our past, they are not necessarily all of a similar nature. In fact, at first they may all look like separate, disconnected events, with little in common. Some may simply be happy memories of something we saw or witnessed, others may be moments we spent with loved ones. What we are looking for to build our narrative on is a particular group of pearls: those bright and happy moments when we were actively doing something and were fully engaged, more or less ‘in the flow’, and which we associate with a feeling of fulfilment and of being in the right place at the right time at the right place. We can call those our ‘active moments of flow’ as those moments are most closely linking our own actions with our emotional system’s sense of optimal state, suggesting that we were in those moments doing things that closely match our temperament, our personal preferences, and – more significantly – our intuitive sense of purpose and fulfilment.

I always loved going to school. There was just so much to learn there, to find out about this mysterious world that was said to exist beyond the few streets of the town I grew up in. My earliest memories of moments of flow are writing essays in class, or solving some problem we were given. Once I started working it was as if time ceased to exist. All that existed was the topic or problem and me exploring it, solving the riddles it posed and looking for the right words to put the answers in. Quite often, once the task was finished, I read back what I had written and would be surprised at the result. I could not remember writing it, and could often barely believe I was the one that wrote it. I often wondered where these writings really came from; they felt so much better than what I though myself capable of.

I used to play field hockey in my sporting days. We played mostly for fun and for the social activities around it, not really to win. I was an OK player and a slightly better than average goalkeeper, but my performance was never very consistent. Often, especially when the game was a bit slow, my mind would start wandering and I would get so distracted by thoughts and ideas I would fail to be of much use to my team. But sometimes things were different. I loved being goalie in tournaments, for instance, when we would play against teams that were much better than us. I would be so busy defending the goal that I would stop thinking about what I was doing. The moment my thoughts stopped, my body seemed to take over. As I discovered, my body was a much better goalie than my mind ever would be. Unfortunately, I never discovered how to make that particular kind of flow happen. Maybe I could have become a star goalie if I had.

Playing field hockey - (c) Bard 1982
Playing field hockey – (c) Bard 1982

Step 3: Sorting Our Pearls

Having separated our active moments of flow from our general collection of pearls we can now begin to group together the pearls that seem somehow related to each other. They may be linked by the place or situation, by the actions we were engaged in, or by the kind of satisfaction we got from them. While it may take some reflection and thinking to find a satisfactory grouping, we should not agonise too much over getting this 100% right. This is actually a great opportunity to learn to trust our intuition and to listen what our feelings are telling us, rather than what our mind comes up with. So, if we do get confused, we just relax, breathe, and simply imagine grouping our pearls purely by feeling. That should be good enough for our purpose.

When I first starting collecting my pearls I did not at first see any similarity between my schooltime moments and those playing hockey. They didn’t seem to have anything in common. The school moments were purely cerebral, had nothing to do with physical activity, and were never about winning or losing, but purely about the joy of solving problems and putting the answers into words. The hockey moments were almost the opposite: it was physical, the purpose was to win (or in my case, prevent the other team from winning by defending our goal), it was non-verbal, and often too fast to even have time to think. On further reflection, however, I did find similarities. Similarities that later turned out to be important op pointers for my personal development and the direction my personal narrative would take.

Both at school and on the field, the ‘triggers’ – the circumstances that would help me get into the state of flow – were similar. Both involved time pressure: in school there was a limited time in which to produce the results, on the field time was dictated by the speed of the opponent and the ball that was coming at me. Both posed an immediate problem that had to be solved right there and then. In school I found that if the task was too broad, or the problem not difficult enough, nothing much would happen. I would do the work but did not experience a sense of flow. On the field it was the same: the higher the pressure, the more intense the action, the easier it was for me to go into the zone and stay there. Apparently pressure – of the right kind – helped me focus. Another similarity was that I never did either activity for the points or the glory, but purely because I enjoyed the feeling of getting it right. Both in school and on the field the joy of solving the problem was more satisfying than getting an A or winning the match.

So, interestingly, these seemingly very different moments were actually very similar in a very specific way. Those similarities told me a lot about myself and some of the choices I made in my life.

– To be continued –

Making Your String of Pearls

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all live up to our full potential and become that person we know deep down we could have been? If only we had not been shaped and moulded by so many external voices telling us what we should and could do, what we shouldn’t do, what to fear and what to obey. If only we had managed to keep hold of the innocent curiosity and imagination of our early childhood, when everything was an adventure, everything was new, and learning was as natural as breathing. If only we had been allowed to make our own story, instead of living one made up of a thousand borrowed pieces. Making Your String of Pearls is a way of finding our way back to that original story – the one we never got to finish but still, somewhere deep down, long to live.

The Origins of This Approach

The idea behind the ‘string of pearls’ approach was taught to me by my late wife Michal. She was an extraordinary person, healer, psychologist and wise woman. Her life’s work was helping people realise their full potential. She believed that most people get stuck in a narrative that is not their own, but is an amalgamation of everything we pick up from other people as we grow up: fears, worries, hopes, expectations, beliefs, assumptions … All these ‘borrowed’ bits of story end up hiding our own, authentic story – the story we would have chosen for ourselves if we had not lost touch with what we were really meant to become.

Michal’s work focused on two processes people needed to follow to get back to their own narrative. One is the process of ‘unwrapping’ the layers of acquired narrative – discarding the emotional and mental baggage others have put on our shoulders but we no longer want to carry with us. The more of this material we can let go of, the more we will be able to tune into our true self – our authentic core – that little voice inside that still holds the innocence and promise of how we entered this world. I will write much more about this process later in this series, under the header Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence.

The other process is the work of constructing our desired story – the one we want to live by. It’s a narrative about what we love doing, what gets us in the flow and what gives us a sense of purpose and fulfilment. It’s a process of finding glimpses of it in our past – moments that we were close to living it, or felt that we were on the right path – and using those moments to extract the underlying story and project that forward into the future. That 7-step process is what the next instalments of this series will be about.

Michal’s teachings have had a huge impact on my life. From the time I met her, during all the years we were married, and ever since she passed away, I have been working on her two-pronged approach to finding my own potential and realising it as fully as I possibly can. It has led me into strange and wonderful discoveries and adventures. It took me halfway across the world, from The Netherlands to Australia. It helped me discard a lot of unnecessary baggage. It made me realise that most of what I now do and practice I have always felt I wanted to do, but kept it hidden underneath the layers of acquired narrative that told me I should forget about ever following my dreams. While discovering more of myself, my passion and my purpose, I tried a range of jobs, from the very technical – designing IT systems – to the purely human – teaching people how to improve their personal and interpersonal skills. I have been a teacher, researcher, software developer, consultant, manager, trainer/coach and public speaker. All that time I also was a father, a husband, a friend and even – not deliberately, but simply because life is never without conflicts – occasionally an adversary.

I now see all those different experiences as part of the process of finding out what my true path should be. Each experience was also an experiment; a test to see what that particular situation would feel like, bring me and cost me, and what it would teach me about myself. Seen like that, none of those experiences was ever a failure or a waste of time. They were all a necessary part of the learning process. Even (or should I say especially) the jobs I hated, the people I fell out with and the places I did not feel at home in, gave me insight about my own authentic core and helped me refine my future path.

I would love for everyone to see life like this. Like an adventure in which every new experience is a learning experience. An adventure in which we are the main protagonist and the author at the same time. A journey that is both the path itself and the way to find a better path. That is the essence of the string of pearls.

Now, let me take you through the steps.

Step 1: Collecting the Pearls

Sit comfortably, relax, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

Let’s imagine our life as a collection of experiences, stretching from the present moment back to our earliest memories. Each remembered experiences is a tiny time-capsule, in which information is stored about the location, the situation, what happened, what we did, what we said, and – most importantly – how we felt at that moment. In fact, for most of our remembered moments we will find that what we felt is recorded much clearer than many of the factual details. Especially when we have attained a reasonable level of emotional awareness (and I promise I will come back to how to attain this in later instalments), the feeling of the moment may actually be the key to locate the memory, and then unlock the capsule to find hidden there information we thought we had completely forgotten.

I once walked into a candy store and was immediately overcome by a sense of fear and nausea, as if something dreadful was about to happen to me. I made my way out of there as soon as I could. Outside, in the fresh air, I calmed down enough to ask myself what on Earth had happened in there? What was it that brought about this violent reaction? I had to find out, so I braced myself, took a few deep breaths to calm my still somewhat agitated nervous system and stepped back inside. The moment I opened the door I noticed a particular smell, something sweet and salty with an undertone of aniseed. As I focused on that smell I could feel the panic rising deep inside me. But because I was expecting it, I managed to stop it from overwhelming me. Instead I mentally went towards it, focusing on what it was that made this smell so threatening to me. And all of a sudden a scene from my childhood – something I had completely forgotten, or so I thought – came rushing back to me.

I was 6 or 7 years old and about to undergo tonsil surgery – something that was rather too routinely done to children in those days. The anaesthetic that was used was a kind of sleeping gas, administered through a cap that was placed over my nose and mouth. I remember the nurse telling me that it was OK, nothing to worry about. I would soon be asleep and would feel nothing at all. And when I woke up it would all be over. But what I experienced was this strong and strange smell rushing into my nose and mouth. I could feel it spread into my lungs and as it did so I saw black rotating figures – like propellors – speeding towards me, as if they were about to chop me up. And I felt myself falling through the chair and accelerating downwards. I tried to hold on to something, but there was nothing to hold on to. As I fell, my vision narrowed till there was only a small tunnel of light left, through which the black shapes were still chasing me. Just before I lost consciousness – and I still clearly remember that feeling – it all of a sudden dawned on me that I was about to die and would never wake up. Then everything turned black.

The light at the end of the tunnel - ©Bard 2017
The light at the end of the tunnel – ©Bard 2017

Once I remembered it, it all made sense. Not only was the smell in the candy shop similar to what the sleeping gas smelled like, walking into the long, dark and narrow shop must have felt like entering that tunnel I saw just before I lost consciousness. What I found fascinating was how the smell had not just triggered the emotion, but had also unlocked a hitherto completely forgotten traumatic experience from my childhood in great detail. And not just the moment itself, but also the story of what led up to it, and the rather painful and equally traumatic recovery period that followed. It was as if the smell had been the key to a vault I had carefully locked and hidden away.

Rediscovering the memories themselves was interesting. But far more interesting was what I could learn from now having access to those lost moments. It made me realise why I distrust people wearing lab coats, for instance. Or why I don’t like those long, dimly lit hallways in many office buildings. But more importantly, it helped me reconnect to a much larger period of my childhood I had almost completely forgotten. Revisiting those moments through an adult’s perspective has taught me a lot about myself and helped me to adjust some long-held beliefs and assumptions about myself and my place in the world.

Now look at this collection of remembered experiences and imagine them as tiny balls, not much bigger than an average bead. When looking at the whole collection, some of the balls will be dark, others will be dull, but there will be some that appear to shine and sparkle, like highly polished pearls. The dark and dull balls are memories of negative or uninspiring moments, experiences where we were not inspired or engaged, possibly even suffering, stressed, afraid or hurt. Ignoring the dark and dull moments, we should be able to pick out the shiny pearl-like ones instead; those are our best experiences: the times when we were full of energy, in the flow, inspired and happy. Some may be small, fleeting even, others may be a big as marbles and full of details clearly remembered; some may be so long ago we had almost forgotten them, others recent and still fresh in our minds. Those details don’t matter now. What matters is that we should be able to collect our pearls from between the dark and dull beads and put them aside for further study and reflection.

– to be continued –