Making Your String of Pearls – Step 5

What Is Your Story – Chapter 12

Looking back at our shiny pearls of the past helps us understand the path we travelled to arrive at the present moment. They show us what we enjoyed and what kept us going. They show us what inspired us and what we value. Of everything we encountered on our journey, our shiny pearls are our best reminder that life was and is worth living. It is now, in this present moment, when we decide what steps to take next, that we can use their light to help us design a path that will bring us even more of what we cherish. We may not see the whole future ahead of us, but this very moment is a fork in the road. Which direction to take is our choice, and ours alone.

Looking for a path through the darkness - (c) Bard 2018
Looking for a path through the darkness – (c) Bard 2018

Step 5: Imagining and Testing Our Future Pearls

Now that we have collected and summarised the shining pearls from our past, it’s time to look to the future and ask ourselves what we imagine that future to look like. Our past pearls show us what kind of situations and actions are most conducive to getting us in that state of flow that indicates we are close to our core purpose and mission in life. Based on that insight, the question we must ask ourselves is: “How can we cause more of those moments to happen in the rest of our lives?” From how and when they happened in the past, can we see ways to increase their frequency and improve their quality? Does the past, next to revealing to us what we want to be doing more of in the future, also contain clues as to the things we must do, change, improve and focus on to increase our chances of living a more fulfilling life in the future?

Bear in mind that in most cases we are not simply looking at repeating what we did in the past. Sure, those moments may have been great, and the pearls shiny enough to fondly remember, but we are no longer the person we were then. We have experienced, learned and changed, most likely brought about by those very moments we so fondly remember, but also as a result of all the other things that happened in our lives. So much so that, should we try to merely recreate the same moments we so fondly remember from our past, they would most likely not give us the same satisfaction. Simple repetition seldom continues to delight, unless we are entirely on target, and do not change much at all. The shiny pearls of our future, then, should be imagined as developments from those of the past: variations that maintain their essence, but adjusted to the circumstances and details to suit who we have become and are growing into. 

One way to find our next shiny pearls is to use the ‘innovation trifecta’ that is part of the Design Thinking approach pioneered by IDEO in the early 2000s. We are, after all, designing our future narrative, so why not use a much-praised design approach to do so?

The innovation trifecta (below) poses three questions designers must ask to determine whether their idea is worth pursuing:

    1. Desirability: do people really want or need this?
    2. Feasibility: do we have the capabilities required to build this?
    3. Viability: is this idea sustainable over an extended period of time?
Design Trifecta: Do I want to? Can I do it? Can I sustain it?
Design Trifecta: Do I want to? Can I do it? Can I sustain it?

We can use similar questions to get more clarity about the narrative we are designing for the future.

    1. Desirability: How much do we want the path we are imagining? How close to our sense of purpose and fulfilment is it?
    2. Feasibility: Do we have what it takes to make this happen? Do we have the skills, means and circumstances in place to see how to create those next pearls?
    3. Viability: Will this path contain repeatable moments that can be expanded and deepened in the longer-term future, or would it be a one-off moment only?

All three questions are essential, and we may need a few iterations around the triangle before we feel we are settling on a type of future path we are excited about, think we know how to manifest and is part of our growth curve for the future. 


I love being on stage, talking to an interested and appreciative audience. I have enjoyed plenty of such pearls in the past, and I could be tempted to just look for more of the same. Instead, I quit my job. I decided to change my path so I could work on this book and see if I could make a living running my own business.

Why did I do that? My job would have guaranteed many more moments on stage. If I had just continued the path I was on, I would not have to worry about generating an income or attracting an audience. Why was I not content with just more of the good thing I had going?

The main reason is that I have changed since I started that job, almost ten years ago. I have learned many new things. I have honed old skills and acquired some new ones. I have thought long and hard about many of the issues my audience told me they were struggling with. I have read many, many books, talked to hundreds of people, and studied up on the latest findings and publications on history, sociology, psychology, behavioural economy, neuroscience and philosophy. It has changed my perception of what matters. From trying to bring people skills to IT professionals and help technology have a more positive effect on people, my focus has shifted to bringing a human focus to organisations and helping business have a more positive impact on society. My past experiences have brought me much joy and satisfaction, but – more importantly – they have shifted my perspective.

In other words, even I could keep repeating my past performances, talking about the same topics, and drawing the same kind of people, I would no longer enjoy it as much as I did before. That path has served its purpose – and done it well – but it is time for me to look for the next iteration of it; the next stage in my journey as a speaker and thinker.

The next pearls on this particular string will have to relate to topics that are closer to my heart than anything I have talked about before. I want my passion to help me push my talks and presentations out of the conventional safety zone. I want my audience to experience moments of surprise and discomfort. I want to them hear things that contradict and challenge ideas, concepts and knowledge they thought they understood already. If I do it right, my work should cause them to stop and rethink their current thinking. At the very least it should make them examine their ideas to decide for themselves if they want to be persuaded by my arguments to change them. 

The desirability question covers what we want our future pearls to look and feel like. The next step is to look at the feasibility of what we imagine those future pearls to be. Do we have what it takes to make them happen? Are they within our reach? 


I feel I can safely say I do have the foundations in place for this next leg of my journey. I have honed my presentation skills and deepened and broadened my content. For my next peals to shine, however, I must make sure I can be even more persuasive and thought-provoking. I must think even more in-depth about what I want to talk about. I must push even harder against the conventional wisdom I believe is holding us back. And I must find ways of presenting my material that drives home my messages more directly.

So there is still work to do before my next set of shiny pearls can materialise. However, having work to do is not a problem. What is important is that I am confident that that work is not beyond my capability to carry out. I know how to get there. I have the time and the discipline to work on this at least a few hours a day. I have enough ideas and outlines of stories to feel I am not blindly pushing forward.

I do realise there are some limits to the feasibility of what I am aiming for. I can’t completely break away from my current public persona. People have expectations about me and about what I will be talking about. I can’t suddenly start talking about International trade policies or the complexities of the financial system, for instance, never having done so before. I also can’t make complete U-turns on the positions I have publicly taken in the recent past without undermining my credibility. Where my opinions have changed, I will first have to take my audience on the same journey that led me to reconsider my position, so they understand why I changed my mind. From a feasibility perspective, the next stretch of pearls will have to be a continuation of my current public persona before I can gradually sharpen my positions and what I speak about.

Other limits have to do with reaching an audience on the scale my previous job made possible. I have left the corporate machine that kept bringing in people in large numbers. I will now have to find my own channels and connections. I will have to establish my own brand now I no longer carry the respectability and clout that came with my previous position. The good news is that the past years have helped to grow my network and my personal influence. So I don’t have to start from zero. It’s going to be reasonably modest, to begin with, but I am confident I can grow things from there. 

The feasibility question is mostly there to make sure we don’t overreach. Just because we deeply desire something doesn’t mean we are ready to make it happen straight away. We need this reality check, and we need to be honest with ourselves. However, we also need to keep believing. We may find we don’t have the knowledge, capabilities or capacity to go directly to where we want to go. That doesn’t mean we need to give up on our dreams. It just says we need to take a step back and first figure out how we can close that gap so we can get where we want to go at a later time. Acquiring the skills, collecting and preparing the tools we need and practising our moves before we make the next big step are all part of the same journey. As long as we see how we can move forward, we are not giving up on the dream.

The next question is about sustainability and repeatability. Will the next pearl be a one-off event or the start of a whole series? Will it be an item we can tick off on our bucket list, or will it be part of our continuing growth and development? 


This question may not be so easy to answer. It involves much guesswork about the future, about other people, about external factors we may not have much power over. It may not even be clear how relevant the concept of viability is to our quest to create our ideal future narrative. Viability is primarily a business concept. Businesses are supposed to aim for growth and longevity. A great trick that only works once is not something you would base a business on.

To make viability relevant to our personal narrative and the string of pearls we are constructing we need to redefine it slightly. We can make it more about whether we think the effort and time required will measure up against the duration and intensity of the satisfaction we expect to get out of those future pearls. In other words: will it all be worth striving for?

That is a very personal question. I find it hard to give any clear guidance or rules for it. We all have different desires and fears. What feels like the Holy Grail for some may ultimately fail to motivate someone else.

What matters here is our own feeling when we think about the pearls we plan on creating next.

Imagine those next pearls in their shiniest possible form. Everything works out exactly as planned and maybe even better than that. How does that make us feel? Does it give us a surge of energy; a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction; a sense of achieving a significant milestone in our lives?

Now imagine the work we need to do to make those pearls happen. Think of the time and effort we estimate it will take us. The pearls will still be the same. But do we still feel that same energy and inspiration? Or does the prospect of all that hard work ahead of us diminish our sense of satisfaction and achievement?

There is no mathematical formula to objectively calculate the balance of costs and benefits of reaching our next perfect moments of flow. All we have is our intuition and our emotional system signalling to us. If we feel more inspired than cowed, we should go for it. If nagging doubts and a sense of dread diminish our enthusiasm, we must not ignore those signals. We must check first whether we are letting our fears and doubts hold us back unnecessarily, or that our emotional system is trying to warn us that the next pearls we envisioned are not actually worth going for.

If the balance of the viability questions turns out to be negative – more trouble than the reward is worth – all is not lost. We should be thankful that we discover it now before we have invested too much in moving forward. We should also remember that in matters of personal choice a ‘yes’ has to be an absolute yes. Anything less than that is at least cause to pause and reconsider. Ignoring nagging doubts, however small, is asking for trouble later.

If we are not convinced we have found the next version of our story, we return to step 4 of the process. We re-examine our collections of pearls and how we summarise their essence. We re-imagine what the next pearls could be, leaving out the paths we have just dismissed. We could find entirely new ideas for pearls we want to make happen. Alternatively, it can mean we modify how we imagine them. We could go for smaller steps that are easier and quicker to achieve. We could imagine ‘intermediate’ pearls that we don’t see as end-goals but as stepping stones to where we want to go later. Such intermediate pearls can be satisfying in their own right and inspire us to keep going while we are learning and practising the skills we need in the future. 

It may take a few iterations. We may experience some stops and starts. At some point, however, we will find the future pearls we deem desirable, feasible and viable. Now we need to take a few deep breaths and calm our minds. If we are sure we have found the right pearls, we calmly make the decision. These are the pearls we will focus on for the next months or years of our lives – for as long, in fact, as we think it will take us to achieve them, and for as long as we think we want them to happen.

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 –

The State of Flow

If there is one thing that makes us human it is our need to find meaning in our lives. No matter what we are doing, at some point the question of purpose will come up. Why are we here? What’s the meaning of our lives? How can we make our lives more fulfilling and meaningful? Rather than trying to answer this question solely by using our rational mind, I believe this is where our emotions are a great source of information, once we learn how to listen to them.

The more aware we become of our emotions and feelings, the more we will notice how they change over time: how they sometimes peak with feelings of happiness and fulfilment and at other times slump towards a sense of dread, stress and emptiness. Our emotional system is our mind-body’s monitoring and regulating system. It keeps track of everything that goes on around and inside us and evaluates that in terms of its relevance to us. Even without us paying attention, our emotions are working 24/7 to help us find the optimum state possible for our system, striving for what some people call “optimum homeostasis” or the best stable state achievable at that moment in time.

Keeping our system in an optimum state of balance is no easy job. In fact, given the complexity of both our system and the world we live in, and the many, often contradictory, demands and forces we are subjected to, there will never be a truly optimum state, nor will it be stable for very long. All we can hope for is an approximation of that optimum and a relative stability that doesn’t wildly swing back and forth at the merest change in conditions.

If we accept the fact that our emotional system is there to find the best possible state for us under the given conditions, we can learn a lot from working out what our changing moods and feelings are trying to tell us about us and the situations we find ourselves in. Some states feel better than others. Some states energise us and help us achieve great things, other states drag us down and stop us from doing anything much. Some states we feel as stressful and uncomfortable, other states are pleasant and relaxed. Sometimes we feel focused and ‘in the zone’, at other times we can barely articulate coherent thoughts or keep our attention on a single thing for more than a few seconds. Our emotions are not just regulating our body-mind system, they are communicating to us as well. They are telling us, through the way they make us feel, what is beneficial and healthy for us, and what is detrimental and damaging.

There is one state in particular that is important for us finding our purpose and fulfilment in life. That is what is often called the state of ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’. It’s a state in which we get so absorbed in what we are doing that we seem to stop thinking about it and just go with what is happening in and around us. It’s as if we are being led by a different intelligence: a mode of thinking and acting that doesn’t require our self-aware and conscious mind to interpret, classify, explain and decide before we can act. This state allows our body-mind to just act, with ease and spontaneity, in harmony with our situation. When we’re in the flow we often achieve our best performance and produce our best work, but it almost feels as if it gets performed through us, rather than us consciously and laboriously producing it.

When Things Just Flow - © Bard 2018
When Things Just Flow – © Bard 2018

There’s a lot that could be said about this state of flow and, indeed, whole books have been written about it. For now, all I want to point out is this: the state of flow, or states that are similar in feel and effect on us, are our best tool to discover our purpose and fulfilment in life. Our emotional system produces the state of flow when we are closest to our optimal state of being, where our situation, actions, mindset and intentions are all aligned and work harmoniously together; where we are not struggling with ourselves or with the world; where we are not ignoring or suppressing our true feelings; where we can just be in the moment and run with it, not against it. By identifying the moments we were in the flow in the past and recognising the unifying patterns and similarities between them, we can use that information to start shaping the foundations for our own personal narrative. This is what I call “Making Your Personal String of Pearls”. In the next instalments of this blog I will tell you exactly how to do this.

The Downside of Our Personal Powers

Part 3: The Dangers of Choice

When we exercise our power of choice we turn from passive objects thrown about by the forces of the outside world into active agents shaping those forces as much as being shaped by them. Making deliberate choices can give us a sense of empowerment and control but it can also be daunting. In the complex, unpredictable and ever-shifting world we live in it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices we must make and the impossibility of getting all of them right.

It seems that the more aware we are and consciously consider every interaction we have with the world, the more our choices multiply. Even the simplest of things, like what to have for breakfast or when to go bed in the evening, could, if we’re not careful, be the source of endless deliberation and hesitation. From a rational perspective there are very few choices that have one clear best option. In most cases the number of variables involved quickly make a detailed comparison between the available choices impossible. Even if we could compare them one by one it’s more than likely that we would find that the pros and cons between options balance each other out, each option having a different mix of plusses and minuses, but no clear advantage to make them stand out as our preferred choice.

On the other hand, even when we are being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of our trivial choices, it can at the same time appear as if we have no real choice at all where the big issues of our lives are concerned. We can’t change the facts of our genes, our family and ancestry, our country of birth, the time we live in, the systems we have to conform to if we want to participate in society, the laws of man and nature, … so many outside factors seem to define and constrain us that it would be easy to conclude we only really have choices where they matter least. A growing awareness of our expectations and increasing clarity of our narratives can lead us into feeling lost between having too many small things to choose between and lacking the power to choose a different path than destiny seems to have prepared for us. We could become like prisoners on our way to our execution, unable to change the inevitable end but all the while worrying whether our choice of shoes was appropriate for the occasion.

Even if we manage to steer safely between the rock of powerlessness and the hard place of being overwhelmed by choice, and manage to find the choices that matter and are clear enough to make, we still face that heaviest of downsides of choice: the burden of responsibility. When we make deliberate choices we assume responsibility for their outcomes as well as their consequences, even when some of those consequences were unintended or unexpected. When, by choosing, we change something, however small, in the course of the world, that change is our doing, and we cannot protest our innocence in bringing it about. We made that choice; we have to live with the consequences. That burden of responsibility is not something to take lightly and can become a major obstacle on our path towards living our best possible lives and consciously traveling the path of our own design.

Caught between powerlessness and an inability to choose, and burdened by responsibility, we could wonder whether trying to live a conscious and deliberate life is really such a great idea. Maybe the simple souls that unthinkingly follow the rules and dictates of their destiny are better off than we are, in our endless struggles? Maybe it is better to let the big choices be made by others, making the little choices without much thinking, not having to feel responsible for any of it as we are simply too small to matter at all?

How to choose? And does it matter? - © Bard 2018
How to choose? And does it matter? – © Bard 2018

Maybe not. After all, choosing not to choose is just as much a choice we make. we can’t actually escape responsibility by sitting still and letting things happen. If bad things happen, things we could have prevented had we taken action, those bad things are (at least for a part) on us. Inaction does not save us from the burden of responsibility, nor does it prevent us from making the wrong choices, as inaction itself can be just such a wrong choice.

Let us, therefore, accept that making choices is part of the human condition. Let us also accept that we can never expect to make perfect choices. There is no place for perfection in a messy, imperfect world. Each and every choice is always at best an approximation of the ideal that lives in our imagination only. The art of making choices lies in making them as deliberate and considerate as we can, observe their outcomes and consequences, and learn from that: adjust our beliefs and assumptions based on what we cause and see caused as we walk our path, so our future choices will be progressively more in tune with the journey we are on.

To end this section on a positive note, here are 4 things to use when doubting our ability to choose:

  1. When we are overwhelmed by the number of choices we have to make: rigorously prioritise them.If we could do only one thing at this moment, and nothing else, what would that be? By weighing each choice for the impact it has on our narrative and journey we can find the one that is most relevant right now and focus on that.
  2. When we feel we have no choices in what really matters: broaden our perspective.When it seems that the major obstacles in our lives are beyond our power to change, we may simply be looking too closely at those obstacles. A wider perspective – which also means removing ourselves emotionally and cultivating an attitude of detachment – will help us find choices that matter rather than getting stuck trying to force issues where we actually have little or no choice.
  3. When we know what we should do, but the prospect is too daunting, too big, too seemingly risky for us feel ready to make that choice: break it down into smaller steps.Remember that even the longest journeys start with one small step. Breaking down the big, daunting choice into smaller components and considering each sub-choice on its own merit may help to find a first step that both doable and desirable and sets us on our way.
  4. When we’re not sure the choice we’re about to make is the right one: imagine its consequences.Though we will never get guarantees our choices are right, we can reduce our uncertainty by imagining how each choice would work out over time. We can create scenarios of the near future and sketch out the consequences of the choices we’re facing and evaluate the likelihood and desirability of those consequences in each scenario.

The Downside of Our Personal Powers

Part 2: The Dangerous Side of Narratives

Narratives give direction, intentionality and movement to our aspirations. A great narrative, with ourselves as the hero of a heroic quest, helps us achieve more, work harder, and enjoy much more what we encounter on the way. But, like with expectations, we must make sure our narratives are properly aligned with our preferred direction. While inspiring and exciting narratives can be enticing and energising, they can also be seductive and lead us away from our most fitting course.

Constructing the right narrative takes time and self-reflection. It takes discernment and a critical mind. In spite of what we are often being told, the world will not simply fall into step with our desires simply because we are thinking happy thoughts and indulge in wishful thinking. There will be obstacles to overcome and (hard) work to be done. Some things may be within our power to change, some can only be influenced indirectly, others may be completely beyond our reach. The best personal narratives are those that walk the knife’s edge between realistically doable and unrealistically desirable. They challenge us to push the envelope of what we think we’re capable of, without tearing the fabric of reality completely to become fantasies only.

As with unrealistic expectations, overly ambitious narratives can become a source of frustration when they continuously push us towards trying to achieve things beyond our power to achieve, or predict outcomes and improvements that fail to materialise. If we fail to use our power of judgment and discernment we may find ourselves trying to climb a Mount Everest without having the right equipment, skills or levels of practice, to end up discouraged and depressed for not actually making it to the top. Even worse, a strongly motivating but ungrounded narrative may get us to throw all caution to the wind and lead us to into potentially fatal endeavours we may not be able to recover from.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dream big. On the contrary, only bold and audacious dreams can lift us out of the limiting perceptions of our current situation and compel us to rise above them. But between the dream and the execution there should be a time of reflection and consideration. In that time, we should hold our dream up in the light of reason and see where it may be push us beyond what we can even conceive of doing, are woefully inadequately prepared for, lack the means for, or that blatantly violate the laws of reality as we know it. The most important thing here is to use that time of reflection to see if and how the dream can be turned into doable (or at least plausibly doable) stages that we can see ourselves attempting with some chance of succeeding. There is no point in aiming for the stars if we cannot see where to start such a journey and imagine what the first achievable outcomes would look like. Even the longest journey starts with the first small step, and it is our responsibility to ourselves to make sure we are ready for the first step and have some idea where to go from there. If we can’t make those first steps at least somewhat concrete we will not only not get to those stars, we won’t even land on the moon. We are more likely to crash and burn, or nor even get started and run ourselves into the ground with misguided disappointment.

Using a sports car for off-road racing - ambitious but not so wise - (c) Bard 2018
Using a sports car for off-road racing – ambitious but not so wise – (c) Bard 2018

And then remember that the heroic quest is a journey of discovery: much of what we will encounter on that journey is unknown when we set off and we must expect to do much exploring and learning on the way. Part of that learning is that our pre-conceived notion about both the journey and the destination may significantly change on the way there. Like expectations, narratives need to be maintained and tuned, and – even more than expectations – subjected to a critical examination of alignment and usefulness. One thing we definitely don’t want is to get stubbornly stuck on the narrative we set out with, because we have become too attached to it.

(To be continued)